Johnson CIty Park and Recreation workers Cody Johnson, left, and Jonathan Greear load dirt and sod in a front-end loader at Arthur Lady Field at Kiwanis Park. (Photos by Lee Talbert/Johnson City Press)
Are you ready for some baseball?
There are a whole lot of kids and Little League organizers who are, and opening day of the Little Leagues around Johnson City will commence once the weather allows. Johnson City has three leagues, separated by the venue where games are played.
The American League plays at Lions Park, Major League at Kiwanis Park and National League at Keystone Park. The American and Major Leagues are set to bring in the new season today, but a game-time decision will be made if games will be played, due to severe weather. The National League is set to open up next weekend.
Either way, league organizers and players are champing at the bit to kick off the new season.
“They love opening day and they’re ready to play ball,” American League President Keith Lunsford said.
Within Lunsford’s league, he said there are about 29 teams in all across five different divisions, with about 350 kids playing the game. The season runs from about March to June and costs $40-$60 per kid, although after all is said and done with equipment costs, each parent spends around $200. While this might seem like a large chunk of money, Lunsford said it pales in comparison with the money parents are spending on weekend teams. Some pay several thousand dollars to have their kids travel and play around the Southeast.
He said Little League offers a great way for children to develop athletic talents and work on life skills like teamwork and communication. Plus, if parents can’t afford the league’s costs, each of the three offers scholarships for those in need.
The three leagues separate the games that are played within the Johnson City area, but a big game at the end of year for the “city championship” gives an overall title to the victor. That’s the only sense in which the leagues are competitive with each other, Lunsford said. He admits he gets just as excited as he did as a boy for opening day, and acknowledges the hard work put in by the board members who’ve been working since September to get the season off and running.
Major League President Stephen Pugh said it’s been a lot of fun seeing his league come together. The Majors contain around 260 kids, with four different divisions based on age. Pugh, in his sixth year as president, says when you see athleticism in the kids, it really stands out.
“There are a few standouts,” Pugh said. “Especially in the younger leagues.”
National League President Charles Campbell has been involved with the local Little League scene for about 30 years, and says the talent is here to hopefully send one team to the biggest competition in the game.
“One of these years, we’re going to make it to Williamsport,” Campbell said, speaking of the Little League World Series in Pennsylvania.
His league has about 300 players in all this year and even has a “challenger” division, where about 40 children with disabilities played last year, with more expected this time around. It’s an old tradition for Johnson City, said Campbell, who pointed out the Little League was first chartered here in 1950.
What keeps Campbell coming back, year after year, for more?
“It’s the people that stick around and manage these leagues that makes it special,” Campbell said. “I love working with the kids and with the people.”
Through fundraisers and sponsorships, the three leagues are able to keep afloat and provide a recreational outlet for the area, and without them, the organizations would fall apart.
Johnson City helps fill the gaps where needed, said Dave Carmichael, athletic manager with the city’s Parks and Recreation department. He said the city gets all three of the leagues’ schedules and tries to put a system together where the city will aid in the upkeep of the fields for the weekday games and provide some cash so each league can pay umpires and scorekeepers.
Like the presidents of each respective league, Carmichael said the weather is a big factor in how and when the games get played, but doesn’t let the rain storms get him down.
“There’s nothing you can do about the weather,” Carmichael said. “It’s a great program we have here.”
For more information about the Little Leagues around Johnson City, check out their individual websites at www.eteamz.com/jcamerican/, www.eteamz.com/jcnll/ and www.leaguelineup.com/welcome.asp?url=jcmll.