Little baseball changes made in Durango

Little League affiliation focuses on skills, all-star competition

Durango youth baseball officials say Youth Baseball of Southwestern Colorado’s decision to change its affiliation and rule set this spring will provide better fundamental learning opportunities for local ballplayers, allow the league to field a competitive all-star team and save the league money.

As registration for summer baseball for age groups uder-10 through under-14 got underway, Matt Pope, board chairman for YBSWC, said the board voted unanimously in November to transition the league from affiliation with the American Amateur Baseball Congress to Little League this season because Little League’s structure and rule set will do “the best for the most people.”

Primarily, the rule changes won’t permit for more complex plays like leading off of bases and base stealing to allow teams to focus on the fundamentals of good pitching and hitting. Teaching younger players pitching, in particular, is hard when they’ve got to worry about runners from the mound, Pope said.

“I think it’s a real good change,” said YBSWC board member and Durango High School baseball coach Rob Coddington. “I think especially for those lower levels up to (age) 12, it’s awesome. It slows the game down and gives the kids a chance to work on fundamentals.”

“We’re sticking to what we do best, which is solid, fundamental baseball,” said YBSWC executive director Richard “Roskow” Roskowinski.

Instead, Pope said Little League rules are focused on instruction, and the organization also bolsters local coaches’ ability to instruct by providing a bevy of online resources like coaching videos, something made possible by the fact that Little League, operated out of Pennsylvania, is the largest and oldest youth sports organization in the world.

“I’m totally excited that Little League is one, so strong, and two, gives us serious support,” Roskowinski said. “Their resources are absolutely phenomenal.”

It’s also the largest in Colorado, with 37 leagues and more than 1,000 teams including those in Grand Junction, Fruita, Montrose and Cortez. Bayfield also will be transitioning to Little League this season.

That makes even more attractive what Pope said he’s most excited about: Little League’s all-star format.

Under AABC teams are preselected by coaches before the organization’s early season – which isn’t conducive to Colorado’s cold spring – and the best team in the league goes on to the state tournament. That format, Pope said, led to some team stacking and put too much pressure on coaches.

Under Little League, all players show up to a skills day where each one is assigned a number and confidentially rated according to his skill abilities. The league then drafts players to create teams with a diverse level of skill, balancing the teams out as best as possible.

“Little League is just really good for a community like ours because it creates a lot of parity. The kids get to see good pitching. The teams aren’t stacked throughout the regular season,” Coddington said.

Then, at the end of the season, the coaches select an all-star team of the best players to represent Durango in the district tournament and beyond with the possibility of playing into the Little League World Series.

“I love the idea of the all-star format,” Pope said. “We have a program where we can put our absolute best team on the field ... a killer Durango team where kids can be proud to represent their town.”

An all-star team is selected from each of the league’s age groups, which run from 9-10 year olds up to 13-14 year olds. After that Coddington will take over with the high school freshmen, who will continue to play under AABC in the summer for competitive reasons.

Since so many leagues in the region now will be affiliated with Little League, Southwest Colorado will become its own Little League district – District 4 – in two years, too, if all goes as planned.

And on top of the foreseen baseball benefits to players and coaches, Pope said the new affiliation will save the YBSWC about $2,000 in membership fees so the league won’t have to raise participation fees this year.

Not everyone is happy with the new changes, though. Some of the “super-serious” players and coaches aren’t a fan of Little League’s “less-serious” rules and have decided to stick with AABC, which is headquartered out of Farmington, Pope said.

Deon Brown, president for AABC’s Farmington association, said some Bayfield, Cortez and Durango teams have combined to play in the older divisions.

Brown said he doesn’t have any Durango coaches or teams registered to participate in the 12 and under leagues, though he does have some individual Southwest Colorado players who have signed on with Farmington’s AABC teams.

AABC provides an extra level of competition, he said, in both its rules and in the week-long Connie Mack World Series hosted in Farmington, which pits competitive teams from across the United States and Puerto Rico – including Coddington’s 18-and-under summer team – against each other.

“I think the biggest reason is the Connie Mack World Series,” Brown said. “ ... If there’s teams or coaches that want to come down and play in AABC, we’re definitely accommodating. We just want to see kids play baseball. That’s all we want.”

Still, Pope said the board put months of thought and discussion into the affiliation change and knew it wouldn’t make everyone happy. The most important thing for YBSWC, he said, is exposing kids to baseball.

“We’re trying to introduce baseball to the highest number of kids,” Pope said. “Baseball is a great game. It’s my favorite game. Baseball is so much bigger than all of us.”

Registration for YBSWC’s new Little League league has been underway since Feb. 15. Although this year participants can register through the league’s new online registration tool at www.durangobaseball.org, Roskowinski said last week that numbers have started out “a little bit slow.”

Online registration will be open until Saturday, or players can register in person from 6 t0 8 p.m. today at the La Plata County Fairgrounds.

The skills day will take place March 31 with the team draft to follow in the first week of April.

“It seemed like you can’t make everyone happy, but I think that ultimately, regardless of what might be said, the best opportunity for kids right now, especially at the young levels, is to play in Little League,” Coddington said.

jsojourner@durangoherald.com