Those who know me know that I have a part-time vocation of officiating youth baseball games. I think I could successfully argue that I have called more games than almost anyone in the area since March. I have visited nearly every town in the county as well as in other towns and some unincorporated areas. I have seen a slow and concerning slow deterioration of our recreation programs.
Any parks and recreation official can tell you there is less participation in recreation programs. Towns don’t have enough players to form their own leagues. Competitive leagues have to be created between towns. In some cases, teams are coming from other counties.
Those in the recreation business will agree with me that one thing has caused the deterioration of recreation programs more than anything else, the rise in travel sports.
One weekend recently, there were 200 travel teams playing baseball in the region, including at three sites in Harnett County.
With players migrating from recreation programs, with minimal costs, to expensive travel leagues, those on the lower end of the financial spectrum may soon lose the opportunity to participate. The situation is getting worse each year.
To show how things have changed, there was once a day in Dunn in the early 1980s when there was a Little League consisting of nine teams that were sponsored by civic clubs and businesses. Close to 100 participants took to the field at Tyler Park.
In contrast, there are towns in Harnett County now with three teams who end up playing each other. One league in Dunn recently had three teams.
I am not being critical of travel baseball parents. In 27 years of umpiring, I have seen none who are more dedicated than these parents.
They sacrifice unthinkable amounts of time and money for their children. A parent recently told me that “I spend every weekend on a ball field for most of the year.”
Another told me he was draining his son’s college fund to pay for baseball.
I don’t know the answer. I would in no way want to lessen the experience of those who participate in travel athletics. I don’t support taking the money travel tournaments contribute to the local economy away. However, it pains me to think money will keep other children from having the same opportunity.
Parents who struggle to pay basic bills can’t pay $500 for a bat. Those parents who work two jobs don’t have time to run a personal shuttle to practices and game.
I want to publicly recognize each parks and recreation director in Harnett County for trying to provide as many opportunities as they possibly can.
They run quality programs. They face an uphill battle they may not be able to win. The elected officials should recognize the problem and work to solve it. All our children deserve nothing less.
Tom Woerner is a reporter with The Daily Record. Reach him at 910-230-2038 or firstname.lastname@example.org.