When the South Baltimore Little League hosted a set of All-Star tournaments last month, an umpire’s comment to one of their coaches was almost as validating as the district championship banners they hung that weekend.

“Something’s really changed in South Baltimore,” the umpire said.

It’s been years in the making, at once mirroring and influenced by the Orioles’ renaissance not far from the league’s home fields. Hundreds of fans attended the regional tournaments last week supporting the top players in a league that sent four teams — two boys and two girls teams — to state tournaments for the first time ever. The program boasted 22% growth and attracted new players with a unique approach to youth baseball.

“We’re building on what is a great tradition in South Baltimore, but we are building and making new moves and new traditions in the ways that we do things and putting together a DNA that will be the, for lack of a better word, the South Baltimore way for a while,” league president Brendan O’Brien said.

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O’Brien has been a part of the league for seven years, first as a parent volunteer and then a board member. He and others involved point to the pandemic’s impact as an indirect blessing on the course of the league. Searching for an outlet for kids that spring and summer, some parents began to organize unaffiliated “Sandlot” baseball games at Swann Park with eight to 10 kids coming out.

Players from the South Baltimore Little League stand for the National Anthem prior to a game. (Photo courtesy of South Baltimore Little League)

As word spread, more kids joined — so many that they’d have to cap the participants — and games weren’t enough to occupy everyone.

“We had such a turnout, we didn’t even know what to do with the people,” said Dammion Toliver, manager of the 11u All-Star team his son Jack Teresi plays on. “We had to start designing real stations and real work — it just started to come together all at once.”

After a year of developing the concept, a group of parents felt it necessary to implement that in the league itself.

“There are a number of folks that are coaching now who were telling me then that they just won’t be a part of this league because of the way things were going, and if we didn’t get a hold of how practices go and how games play out,” he said. “It’s just not a fun event, not a fun thing to go to a minors game and lose 22-1 and have everybody just walk, all the time.”

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They started the changes in fall ball, eschewing teams all together and grouping players for skill development. The parents credit Orioles director of player development Matt Blood, whose two sons play in the league, for helping hone that structure as time progressed. Instead of games, the entire league holds a “skills and drills” night on Mondays, breaking up into stations over multiple fields and working with different coaches on specific movements and activities.

“When we implemented that and went to that model, we saw a lot of growth,” said Kenny Kulesz, the 10u All-Star team’s manager and, along with Blood, the league’s co-coaching coordinator. “Kids were having a blast, and the other thing is maybe they were on a team that record-wise didn’t do that well, but they knew they were still coming out for skills and drills and playing with their friends, practicing with their friends, getting in these scrimmages that are skill-based and they’re going to win-some, lose-some, but they’re being challenged appropriately.”

There were different levels to that, too. They tried to group players by skill levels so the playing fields were level, and appropriate coaching could be delivered for that specific group.

“It enables them to break kids down into groups that they need to be in to really accelerate their progress,” said Matt Shudtz, whose 9-year-old son Kevin is on the 10u All-Star team.

O’Brien credits the skill development with adding at least a full team’s worth of players to the league this year, as the reputation of a player’s experience in the league traveled. That, coupled with adding softball and an intermediate division to help keep players who otherwise would age out, helped boost numbers from around 350 a year ago to 425 this year. The growth in the girls’ group is particularly encouraging as well, with the 60 players in softball being enough to put two teams — their 12u and 10u teams — in the state tournament as well. No other team in the district had enough players to compete at that level.

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But the growth spans the entire league. There will be fewer than a dozen 12-year-olds next year, with many leaving for other leagues over the last few years, particularly among more talented players. But nearly all of the two All-Star teams will be back, and O’Brien said next year’s batch of 9-year-olds is 60 players deep. Toliver noted how many of the current players have younger brothers who are following them up the ladder.

“We’re replacing dwindling numbers with massive numbers,” O’Brien said. “The new way we’re doing things, we will be retaining most of those highly skilled ballplayers. In fact, I know for a fact that we’re attracting them from other leagues.”

To watch the All-Star teams practice ahead of the state tournament last week had the feel of an Orioles minor league affiliate’s pregame work. In the batting cage, hitters faced a high-velocity machine with dimple balls that accentuated the pitch’s movement. In the outfield, they hit plyo balls — soft balls filled with sand to provide instant feedback on quality of contact.

Blood, O’Brien said, has influenced not only the work the players do but the philosophy by focusing all the work players do on using their own physicality to get to a particular goal.

“Every drill we do is sort of like a fun little game on the one hand, but also is serious in that it has a goal,” he said.

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The Orioles’ influence goes beyond just a few volunteers — Aberdeen development coach Ryan Goll runs stations on the Monday minor league off days as well. Camden Yards has become almost a satellite location for the league.

“They have such a baseball bug,” said Meg Biscoe, whose son Milo is on the 11u team. “At any given game or night, you can find a handful of these kids at the game — and they migrate to each other.”

At the All-Star tournament last month, the players’ siblings set up a bird bath section and sprayed water on each other to mimic the new feature at Camden Yards. They practice in all varieties of orange and Orioles gear. And not unlike the team that’s captured the city’s attention this year, they seem to be having fun doing it.

“Our goal is to hold onto these kids and keep them playing baseball as long as they want to, and the best way we can do that is make a great experience for them,” said Kulesz, whose 10u team featuring his son, Kayden, and Blood’s son, Henry, continues its state tournament run Tuesday. “Wins and losses don’t matter. They just remember, ‘Did they have fun?’ And if they had fun, they’re going to come back. And if they keep coming back often enough, they’re going to learn something.”


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This story has been updated with the correct spelling of Dammion Toliver’s surname.

Jon Meoli is the Baltimore Banner's Orioles columnist and head women's ice hockey coach at Loyola University Maryland.

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