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Sports programs touch all the bases, enrolling younger players in Baltimore County

Baseball fever has returned.

The Baltimore Orioles open their season this week and youth baseball teams for all ages and abilities are getting ready in Arbutus, Catonsville and Baltimore Highlands.

Over the last few weeks, players have been evaluated and teams have been drafted.

Baltimore Highlands, where youth programs are entering a third year after going dormant in 2014 because of a lack of players, has seen interest rebound and nearly 100 players had signed up by the end of last week.

"The littler kids get upset because they watch their brothers, play," said Commissioner Dwayne Harkleroad. "They want to play."

As more children take part in the program, the age range is expanding. Last year, the program was for children ages 4 to 9. This year, it moved to 3 to 10, giving last year's senior members another chance to play and younger children opportunities to learn about the game, Harkleroad said.

The program's 3- and 4-year-old division, "Introduction to Baseball," is new for 2017 and will provide clinics on how to run the bases, throw a ball and swing a bat properly. It's designed for those who are not ready for T-ball, where the ball isn't pitched but placed on a tee, a game designed for 4- to 6-year-olds.

R.J. Campbell's 6-year-old daughter, Maleah, is gearing up to play T-ball in Baltimore Highlands for her second year. She's excited for the season to begin, he said.

"It gives them something to look forward to," he said. "She just loves hitting off the tee."

Campbell, 36, played baseball in Baltimore Highlands as a child and he's excited to watch his daughter play as he helps coach her team. He said the sport teaches camaraderie and sportsmanship.

"Everybody's learning," he said. "Just seeing them smiling and running is pretty cool."

In Arbutus, participation in the Arbutus Little League program increased from about 260 last year to about 325 this year, said its president, Butch Miller.

The increase was most apparent in the league's youngest division, a T-ball league for 5- and 6-year-olds, where the number of teams increased from five to 11, Miller said. That league and the instructional league, for 7- and 8-year-olds are considered noncompetitive, designed to acclimate the kids to the sport.

"We're not keeping score, although parents do quite a bit," he said.

In Catonsville, enrollment for the Catonsville Youth League Baseball program — about 600 children, ages 5 through 17, including a travel team — is about the same, compared to years prior, its president, Tom Rainier, said.

The younger divisions are more popular, he said, adding the divisions for 5- and 6-year-olds and 7- and 8-year-olds will have 10 to 12 teams, apiece.

"As they get older, they lose interest or move on to other sports," Rainier said. "Younger kids play multiple sports."

Participants in youth sports have an increased likelihood of being physically active later in life, higher academic performance and lower levels of depression, and problem behaviors, according to the Datalys Center for Sports Injury Research and Prevention, a nonprofit created by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, BioCrossroads, and the American College of Sports Medicine.

While youth baseball appears to be on the rise in southwest Baltimore County, John Engh, executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports, a West Palm Beach, Fla.-based advocacy group, said he's noticed a slight decrease in popularity of the sport in recent years, based on sporting-goods sales, though he added it's hard to track the various recreational leagues that exist because no one, to his knowledge, compiles it.

Other sports and activities serve as competition for baseball, he said. He said some kids want to do things their parents can't tell them how to do, such as lacrosse, extreme sports or video games.

"I think today that kids are interested in so many other things, the whole idea of technology being so prevalent in their lives, it's hard," he said.

Miller, the Little Little League president, said baseball teaches about patience and how to read and react to situations.

"Every pitch is like a brand new story. It's like a brand new book that opens," he said. "There's always going to be something different and they all only have a split second to make a decision."

Harkleroad, the Baltimore Highlands commissioner, said he's glad the children in his community are taking part in the sport.

"Anything to get them off the couch," he said.

Ways to celebrate

Early on in the season, area leagues use community celebrations to showcase what they do.

Arbutus and Baltimore Highlands both have parades scheduled. Baltimore Highlands' parade is May 6, when the first games of the season are played. Harkleroad said it's organized to bring the community together, as there will be games and music for the community to enjoy, along with pit beef from the English Consul Volunteer Fire Department.

"It's the big day for them to get excited and get their first games in," he said.

The Arbutus parade is set for May 13, two weeks after the first games of the season.

"I think the first weeks of games are like a dress rehearsal," Miller said. "By Parade Day, we're in full swing. It's a way to bring the community together within our sport."

In Catonsville, youth baseball officials ended the parade tradition last year because construction at Catonsville Elementary School left the group without a staging area for it. Last year, a field day and skills competition event on opening day was organized in its place, Rainier said, which was popular among the kids.

This year, opening day is April 29.

Divided by age group, the players had a home run derby and competitions to see who could run around the bases the fastest, throw the fastest pitch or make the longest throw.

"It was a real hit," he said. "The kids liked it. It gets them more involved and they do more baseball skills."

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