By Alan Gionet

DENVER (CBS4)– The ping of the bat sounded at Metropolitan State University’s fields as baseball and softball games played out on Friday. A visit from Major League Baseball gave a boost as the league came to show support.

(credit: CBS)

“Yeah, it’s my sport,” said 15-year-old Nathaniel Butler as he chewed a big wad of gum in the dugout on a 100-degree day.

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“We’ve gone through everything. Track, football,” said his father Lancy as he sat in the stand. Lancy Butler ran track and played football when he was younger. So as a father he wanted his son involved.

“Athletics is important to me. And I think you should have a combination of athletics and academics.”

He was glad when Nathaniel told him one day, “’Dad, I signed up for baseball.’ OK. OK. And he’s just kind of taken off from there.”

It’s the kind of move the MLB loves. Baseball has seen declining participation in recent decades. While softball has grown and recent college championships even drew in bigger ratings than baseball college championships, overall pro ball has an aging television viewership and falling participation.

(credit: CBS)

“I think they may have lost a generation or two with how the style of the game goes,” said Darren Harrison of Bill’s Sports Collectibles, a memorabilia store on South Broadway. “It’s still a lot of the traditional old school people in their 50s and 60s that are the hardcore fans.”

Underserved communities have been walking away for a variety of reasons.

“There’s a lot of kids and communities, especially post COVID don’t necessarily have the resources currently,” said Major League Baseball’s David Jones,
Vice President of Baseball and Softball Development.

The MLB’s “RBI” program, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities seeks to change that.

“Most all of the major league clubs and minor league clubs support leagues in their community,” including the Rockies noted Jones.

The reasons for the decline in participation are many. Baseball viewership on television is primarily among older demographics. The sport used to be the first choice. Now soccer is first in many communities. While pickup basketball games can be seen on playgrounds, sandlot baseball is growing rarer. Like many youth sports, it has been further monetized.

“Travel ball has priced a lot of kids out. Now if you’re a good kid that plays community play, somebody comes to get you. But we believe actually the bad days in baseball are just as important as the good days,” said Jones.

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(credit: CBS)

Recreation departments are seeing cuts and support for leagues is declining. That’s part of the reason the MLB supports local play. By Memorial Day, teams are often pared down for the travel teams. But Jones feels that leaves out players with the chance to improve, or simply play.

“The kids that didn’t make that team probably need more opportunity to play more than anybody else so that they can improve their game.”

There are certainly other reasons. Much of the time when he was young, Lancy Butler played outdoors.

“You couldn’t get us in. Mom would say time to come in the house and we would be upset.”

He has seen his son playing video games and is glad to see him on a baseball diamond. Computer time has stopped some young people from getting involved.
On the other side, parents in many sports are now so involved, the coaches, managers, umpires and referees have noted their interference is a negative. Over-involved?

“This is a personal opinion, yes,” said Jones.

“And you know where parents let them alone now? Online. They don’t get in there,” said Jones. “But when they go out on the field… Let them play. Good or bad, let them play.”

Jones believes playing ball is a needed lesson.

“I am a firm believer that baseball mirrors life. You’re going to have good days, you’re going to have bad days. So there are some learned things that will help you through the rest of your life.”

In the heat of the metal stands, Lancy Butler watched and cheered his son. Nathaniel drove a crisp single to left that had his Overland team cheering as they played Bruce Randolph. The next inning he made an error.

“Yeah that was a good hit,” he shared in the dugout. “The first inning was good, I just got to do better, that’s all,” he added.

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“Man I’m proud of him, I’ll tell you that,” said his father.

Alan Gionet