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Hurdles remain to reunifying youth leagues

By MATT RAWLINGS

Of the Keizertimes

Don’t look now, but springtime is right around the corner, meaning that youth baseball and softball will be in full swing a few months from now.

With registration starting to ramp up, both Brad Arnsmeier — Keizer Little League President — and Ryan Walsh — McNary Youth Baseball President — are really encouraged about the direction of their respective programs going into the 2019 season. 

“We feel really good about the direction were going,” Arnsmeier said. “We have seen growth in both our softball and baseball programs. Every new year is exciting and we can’t wait to get started.”

“Our numbers were really strong after the first week out,” Walsh said. “We want both programs to succeed and have youth baseball in Keizer in a good place. That’s what the goal is.”

From 1972 to 2008, KLL was the only option for youth baseball and softball in the city. But just over a decade ago, several leaders left the group — with tournament revenue being the main point of contention — to form Keizer Youth Sports Association (which is now MYB).

Both Walsh and Arnsmeier weren’t involved with their respective leagues when the split occurred, but both parties claim to actively be trying to bring the two groups together. 

“It’s not just the city that would like to see a unified program again in Keizer. I would say we all would like to be under one umbrella. Keizer Little League and MYB officials sit down several times each year to try and find common ground,” Arnsmeier said. 

“We each offer solutions, but we haven’t found the perfect fit yet. I will always remain optimistic, but until the two groups can resolve just a couple of fundamental philosophical differences it will be difficult.”

While MYB Vice President Bo Lane does want to have those conversations about coming together once again, he also believes that it won’t happen in the near future.

“I would consider both programs successful, so we need a really good reason to undoubtedly say that we need to make a change in order for our two programs to be better, and I’m not sure that we actually have an answer for that right now,” Lane said.

“It doesn’t mean that we won’t explore it, but at this point we don’t have that one main reason to do this. But maybe that is something we should talk about more.”

One of the biggest philosophical differences between the two programs is the way teams are constructed. 

With KLL, players who tryout are put through a drafting process to determine which team they will play on during the regular season.

At the end of the regular season, the best players will be put together to form an All-Star team that will compete in the District 7 Little League Tournament, with the hope of progressing to the state tournament or even the Little League World Series. 

MYB, on the other hand, has tryouts and places kids on teams that match their skill level and experience:  Federal, highly competitive, American, very competitive, National, level similar to recreational. leagues with a bit more competitiveness. (For kids under the age of eight playing T-Ball or Double-A, only the recreation option is available). 

Each team will play a league schedule against other squads from the valley — such as Sprague or West Salem — and then has the chance to qualify for the state playoffs.

There are also some minor rule differences between the two programs as well. For example, MYB, which plays by Junior Baseball of Oregon (JBO) rules, allows players to lead off of bases. But that is not permitted in KLL play.

KLL also offers softball while MYB only does baseball.

Since both KLL and MYB play the majority of their games at Keizer Little League Park, there have been some disagreements about what each side wants to do with some of the individual fields. 

At the KLL Long Range Task Force Meeting on Jan 2., MYB personnel stated that they wanted to make the infields all dirt — likely due to the fact that it would be easier to change the dimensions of the infield with the pitcher’s mound and the bases, making it so teams of different age and skill levels could use the same field.

KLL, however, wants the infields to have the more traditional grass look for baseball — KLL has had the city’s contract for management at Keizer Little League Park since 2013.

Even though it seems that theyhave conflicting ideals, Arnsmeier claims that the two sides aren’t all that different.

“If people were to take a close look at the two programs, they would find out that we are so much more similar than different,” Arnsmeier said. 

The truth is that youth baseball looks much different in 2019 than it did in 1972. There are youth teams all over the Salem-Keizer area that aren’t attached to a league, so they exclusively play travel ball in weekend tournaments. 

Both KLL and MYB place a large emphasis on player development, which is why KLL Vice President Lisa Buik believes that keeping the two programs separate may not be such a bad thing. 

“It’s almost a better thing to stay as we are, because if we decide to march together under the same umbrella, it doesn’t stop somebody else from coming in and starting their own thing,” Buik said. 

“So, having people with a more constructive mindset on two separate sides of the fence is probably the better thing, instead of creating another war that could potentially happen.”

Since the two groups split in 2008, there have been several instances of animosity between MYB and KLL over the last decade.

One of the more recent examples came in December of 2017 at a Keizer City Council meeting regarding a proposal by KLL to hike up field usage fees by $10. 

Walsh, as well as other MYB members, were opposed to the increase. After Clint Holland — who manages the concession stand at Keizer Little League Park — claimed that not showing up to the fields for reserved times had a large impact on concession sales, the temperature in the room evidently got so heated that Mayor Cathy Clark had to cut the conversation short.

At the task force meeting on Jan. 2, concession sales were a big point of contention yet again as multiple people at the meeting confirmed that, over the years, KLL and MYB kids and parents were instructed not to buy anything from the concession stand if it didn’t benefit their own organization — concession revenue goes to whoever holds the contract at the park. 

However, both Walsh and Arnsmeier indicated that the two programs have left those troubles in the past.

“Many times, when you have competing programs, you always have stuff that you have to deal with,” Arnsmeier said. “We’ve had some bumps in the road, but it’s all water under the bridge.”

Walsh also added: “It’s two separate programs working amicably and very fluidly. We have a cohesive and fluid relationship and we work together all year long.”

Both programs also shared how developing players on and off the field is their top priority.

“Our board is filled with people that are really passionate about kids improving and having fun and helping them become successful young men in our community.” Lane said. 

“I take my involvement with (KLL) very, very seriously. I love to volunteer and I love to coach,” Arsmeier said. “If it makes a difference in someone’s life, every minute I spend on the field is worth it.”