Little League signups will be held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 26, at the Coast Union softball field, according to youth baseball organizer Gary Stephenson. Kids from 8 to 13 years old — whether they have baseball experience or not — are asked to bring their mitts and gloves to the park along with an eagerness to learn how to play baseball. The season begins in March and continues through the first week of June.
There are some substantial changes in Little League this year: a new division is being added, and for the first time, base runners can lead off before the pitch is delivered, Stephenson explained.
The new division is called the 50-70 division. For 13 year-olds, they will be playing on a field in which the distance from the mound to home plate is 50 feet rather than 46 feet, and the distance between bases is 70 feet instead of 60 feet, the normal distance for Little League.”
The reason for the lengthening of the pitching distance and the distances between bases is to help prepare 13-year-olds (eighth graders) for high school. Previously, Little League was just for kids 8 to 12, and so those 13-year-old boys who really loved the game and wanted to excel had to “sit around on their hands for a year before going to Coast Union,” Stephenson pointed out.
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The divisions in Little League begin with the “Minor Leagues” for 8 and 9 year olds. The “Major Leagues” are for 10, 11 and 12 year olds. The “50-70” division will be for 11, 12 and 13 year olds, Stephenson explained.
“We will start with 13-year-olds in the 50-70 division,” Stephenson continued, “but if we need more players in that division, we will draft 12 year-olds to fill the 50-70 division — and if there still aren’t enough we will go down to the 11-year-olds.”
Stephenson believes the players will “aspire to play in the 50-70 division” because it is more like the high school game (90 feet between bases and 60 feet, 6 inches from the mound to home plate), and they can lead off base, something they have never been able to do in the Minors and Majors.
Leading off base means more strategy is involved for the infielders and the pitcher. “It’s a lot more like real baseball. The pitcher has to stay aware of the base runner,” and the catcher has to be alert to the possibility that a runner will try to steal second base. “This makes it a lot more fun for the kids,” Stephenson continues.
Kids have been allowed to lead off in practices — and “it’s all good fun for them,” Stephenson said. “But now for the 50-70 division, they will be able to lead off in a game and it will be more exciting.”
Stephenson has been heavily involved with youth baseball in Cambria since 2006. “I love baseball and I really love seeing kids play baseball,” he said. He has two boys (10 and 12), and both of them play baseball. “It is something I have encouraged in part because it is great to see them play and in part because is satisfies something in me to see them out there playing ball.”
Because of the new 50-70 division, his oldest son, Will — whose youth baseball career would have ended without the new division — will be playing this season. Many kids have come up to Stephenson — kids who “missed out on playing last year, who maybe aged out of Little League” — have said they want to play in the new 50-70 division.
Stephenson asserts that there is a “bubble going through this town of really fantastic young baseball players. We’re going to try to keep that bubble alive. There are some fantastic players who really love the game — it’s exciting.
“There is a tradition and a culture that goes along with the game,” Stephenson said. “It’s not just learning the rules and trying to figure out how to hit a curve ball. It is a matter of understanding the sportsmanship and the values that baseball brings to a kid. They are learning social skills too.”
And for youngsters playing ball in Cambria, Stephenson said, “they support each other in the best possible way. It makes me want to coach when kids lift each other up. It’s a compliment to the parents in this town.”