As Rick Wilson sat on a bench along 2nd Street next to Angleberger Field in Baker Park, he said there’s a joke many Little League coaches use to describe the field.
“Don’t spit on the field, or it will flood,” Wilson said.
Angleberger Field is constantly saturated with water, notably in left field. It’s one of the many issues Frederick American Little League has faced in recent years, Wilson said.
Wilson is president of Frederick American Little League, a league that has seen participation decline since he started coaching in 1998. Back then, he said the league had more than 200 kids playing. Now, that number fluctuates between 100 and 120.
The league also hasn’t had a home field to play on since last May, when heavy flooding hit the city of Frederick. Angleberger Field has been unusable since then, Wilson said.
Despite those hardships, Wilson, who has been president of the league for 16 or 17 years, remains committed to running games, fundraising and field upkeep. He said making a difference in kids’ lives stems back to when he played baseball at the Naval Academy from 1981-83, for Coach Joe Duff.
“I remember him on the bus rides, just having conversations and he would be like, when you guys get done, you have to remember these experiences and give back to the kids,” Wilson said. “So when you get done playing, that’s when it’s time for you to get back in, teach the kids what you’ve learned.”
A particular challenge the league is facing is that many households within its boundaries appear to fall under the Asset Limited, Income Constrained, Employed (ALICE) threshold. Those households often struggle to pay for basic needs, like housing, food and transportation.
Ken Oldham, president and CEO of the United Way of Frederick County, created some rough maps of both the league boundaries and ALICE families in Frederick.
The league includes U.S. 40, Hillcrest, Key Parkway and other neighborhoods on the western side of the city, and along the Golden Mile. Much of the central part of the region contains upwards of 50 or 60 percent of households below the ALICE line, according to United Way data.
Oldham said transportation — parents getting kids to and from practice — is particularly difficult in ALICE communities.
Youth sports are also critical for kids’ overall well-being, Oldham said. But without a home field to play on, that can be difficult.
“I think it’s particularly sad that a community of the city that is already struggling, and struggling in the ability to afford a basic cost of living also doesn’t have a field to play on,” Oldham said.
Local dealership pitches in
Despite all the challenges at Angleberger, Frederick American Little League will soon be getting some help from Shockley Honda and Little League’s national partners.
Kara Murray, marketing director at Shockley Honda, said American Honda is working with Shockley to give a $30,000 grant to Wilson and Frederick American, in order to restore the field at Braddock Heights Community Center.
That work will occur sometime between June 8-16, part of the Honda Week of Service Initiative, Murray said.
“We’re very excited it’s hitting real close to home,” Murray said. “I’m sure everyone will be excited to have a nice clean new field they can take pride in.”
American Honda, in a prepared statement, said it has been working with Little League partners and was happy to offer the assistance.
“Given the severity of the flooding problem and that it has happened to them on prior occasions, we at Honda felt like there was an urgent need to help get this league back on its feet as quickly as possible,” the statement read. “Honda is honored to be a part of helping to get them up and running again.”
Wilson said Angleberger has been the league’s home field since about the 1950s, but the improvements to the Braddock Heights field are key.
“We’ve been here forever. This is our home field,” Wilson said while overlooking Angleberger. “But having Braddock as a backup is huge.”
Why has participation been down?
When it comes to the league’s decline in recent years, Wilson believes one reason may be driving the issue: cost.
Currently, the league fee is $125, Wilson said. Tee-ball, for kids 4 to 7 years old, is free, he added.
Wilson said parents can work with the league to lower that cost, essentially making it a “pay what you can afford” model.
“We will find a way, we’ll fundraise, we’ll do what we have to do to get these kids to play,” Wilson said.
He added, however, that there’s a fine line between helping people and being able to pay the league’s bills.
“The problem is ... if you advertise that, everybody can’t pay, and then they’ll pull up in their Escalade,” Wilson said. “But we have some kids that are legit hardship kids, and we want them to play.”
Oldham said the decline in Frederick American Little League is not unique, as participation has dropped for youth baseball nationwide in recent years.
The Aspen Institute: Project Play is an organization that tracks youth sports participation nationwide in its annual “State of Play” report.
According to Aspen’s data, 16.5 percent of 6- to 12-year-old kids played baseball “on a regular basis.” By 2017, that number dropped to 13.1 precent.
Oldham said the rise of travel teams, and families being unable to afford to pay.
For Frederick American, that ties back to the ALICE data, he said.
“Whether or not there’s a direct correlation would take research, but we anticipate a lot of it has to do with the high level of ALICE levels in our draw area,” Oldham said. “There are probably a lot of socioeconomic issues at play here.”
Despite all the challenges with Angleberger, Wilson said he wants people to know the league is still playing. Much of his days are currently spent shuffling games between different fields citywide.
Donna Linton, who has lived in Frederick for about 25 years, has three grandsons who play in the league: Evan Wolfe, 11, Justyce Palmer, 10, and Alija Cartnail, 8.
“It’s very important to me, it gives them something to look forward to,” Linton said.
The three have gone through hardships in life, as Linton said she gained custody of all of them in 2015. She signed them up for Little League in March 2016, and they’ve been playing since.
“We would do it every day if they could,” she said.
Wilson said that right before Christmas, Evan sent him a Facebook message which essentially said he didn’t know what he would be doing, if it weren’t for him and Angleberger Field.
“When he sent me that message, I said, ‘All right, I’m good for another 20 years,’” he said. “We want those kids to play. It could be the only positive thing they have going for them, going on in their life.”