HAGERSTOWN — Hagerstown has an argument for calling itself one of the premier Little League towns in America. It sent teams to the Little League World Series in 1950, 1968 and 2008, each one bringing together the small Western Maryland town and fostering excitement in the community.
That passion for baseball has dwindled since 2008. Hagerstown’s professional team disbanded in 2020, and Little League participation plummeted as the number of leagues dropped significantly.
The city enjoyed vibrant youth baseball for over a century. Reintroducing a professional team could be key to reviving it, and Little Leagues might help the incoming Atlantic League team create and sustain valuable connections with the community.
“The people that attend [the new team’s] games are going to be these kids in these baseball leagues,” Little League coach Sam Croteau said. “They’re going to see these players, and it will give them motivation to work hard and get to that level. Anytime you have … people to look up to, it’s a huge benefit.”
The Suns — Hagerstown’s former minor league club affiliated with the Orioles and Nationals among other franchises — and their roster were intertwined with baseball at all levels throughout their existence.
They sent players to Little League opening day ceremonies, and hosted meet and greets and autograph sessions at local restaurants and parks. The team’s broadcasters sometimes called Little League games on local radio, said Dan Spedden, president of the Hagerstown-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“They would even interview the kids after the game, kind of like you see in a major league game,” Spedden said.
But when new ownership took control of the Suns in 2010, those initiatives slowed to an eventual halt. And, with it, interest in the team diminished. When Major League Baseball contracted the minor leagues in 2020, Hagerstown was one of many cities to lose professional baseball.
“The owner was strangling this franchise to death,” said Scott Nicewarner, city administrator and former Suns radio broadcaster. “The fan base declined. It was absolutely no surprise to us that, when the contraction came, we didn’t have a ball team. … It was embarrassing to an extent.”
That coincided with decreasing Little League participation. Hagerstown, with a population of just over 43,000, was previously home to 13 leagues. It currently has three.
Nationwide trends show a similar fall. Baseball participation in U.S. children 6 years old and up has decreased every year since 2018, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association. Little League has seen a 1% to 2% decrease in participation annually since the early 2000s, said Patrick Wilson, Little League chief operating officer.
This trend has worsened since the COVID-19 pandemic. The number of children heavily involved in the sport declined 10.4% from 2019 to 2021, the largest decrease in a two-year span since the SFIA began tracking.
Hagerstown’s Little League history is rich. National Little League, one of the city’s leagues, was the third chartered league in Maryland and the first not on an Army base. Established in 1949, it earned a trip to the Little League World Series in just its second year of existence.
“Baseball was the big thing,” local baseball historian Bob Savitt said. “Every Sunday, people would go to church, have lunch and then head out to the ballpark.”
That baseball culture has weakened in recent decades, though. The growing popularity of other sports and the increasing cost of playing baseball have taken a toll on Little League participation both nationally and in Hagerstown, resident Larry Horchner said.
“Baseball doesn’t seem to be as prevalent in everyday life as it was when I was a kid,” said Mike Conroy, Federal Little League board member.
Federal Little League has found ways to reverse that trend. It is the city’s only league that has grown in participation in the past two decades due to the family-friendly atmosphere it fosters.
“My dad played Little League baseball, I played Little League baseball, my dad coached me, and now I’ve had the opportunity to coach both my sons,” said Mike Foster, a Federal Little League coach. “That community spirit of just playing with friends, building friendships and growing as a person and an athlete [is what Little League baseball is all about].”
But the new pro team that will call Hagerstown home in 2024 hopes to help reverse the declining youth baseball trends.
The team in the Atlantic League, a league with a partnership but no direct affiliation to MLB, plans to feature Hagerstown’s Little Leagues prominently in its early years of operation, said Chuck Domino, a former minor league executive who is working with the club as a consultant on ballpark operations. Little Leagues will play games in the ballpark and the team is discussing events such as parades featuring players in and around the stadium, Domino said.
“You get the kids involved, and then they’re gonna show up for the ballgame,” Conroy said. “Then they’re coming 10 years later and they’re drinking beer with their buddies watching the ballgame.”
A successful reciprocal relationship will stand to help the team and youth baseball. Promotions will attract little leaguers, who will then benefit from having players to look up to in their own city.
“More kids would probably still be playing,” former Herald-Mail sports reporter Bob Parasiliti said. “A kid meets somebody and they find an idol. A lot of these kids didn’t get to meet these guys that were coming to town.”
It’s been 15 years since the city last celebrated a local team that reached the Little League World Series. Since then, organized baseball in Hagerstown has witnessed a significant decline in participation. A rekindled interest in baseball could trickle down to the youth level, restoring the city’s rich Little League history while helping grow the professional club.
David Blenckstone, the father of a player on the 2008 Little League World Series squad and GM of the incoming professional team, witnessed firsthand what a spirited youth baseball culture can do for a city. He hasn’t seen it since. He hopes a successful partnership will help it return.
“There was just so much excitement in this area,” he said. “There was just a lot of pride in this community.”
This story was produced by students at the Shirley Povich Center for Sports Journalism and distributed by Capital News Service, a nonprofit, student-powered news organization run by the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism.