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Babe Ruth program struggles for respect

(Published June 14, 1999)

By MICHAEL NEWALL

Staff Writer

Four years ago, D.C. resident Tommye Grant tried unsucessfully to find a baseball team for her son to play on. Amazed at the disarray she said she found in the city’s Little League program, Grant took matters into her own hands and founded Washington’s first team to participate in the nationwide Babe Ruth Little League.

Now, over four years and 42 teams later, Grant and other league officals are fighting the D.C. Department of Recreation and Parks for the respect that they think they have earned.

With the leadership of Grant, the league’s first president, Pat Bitondo, a retired school teacher and assistant commissioner of the league, and the help of over 150 volunteers, the D.C. Babe Ruth League has thrived in its first four years of existence. The number of teams participating in the league has risen so steadily in the last four years that officials fear they will soon have to split the existing charter into two. Just last season the Olympic Research Committee sponsored a team and the Metro Police Boys and Girls Club incorporated their teams into the league.

Bitondo said the league is a city-wide venture that aims to get at least one team in every ward. She said Little League baseball in the city’s recreation programs is virtually non-existent and aside from successful teams in Wards 3 and 4 is in a "phantom state."

"We are trying to bring the game of baseball to the young kids of Washington and we are trying to do this in our own unique way," Bitondo said.

Bitondo stresses that the Babe Ruth League is fundamentally different from D.C.’s traditional Little League in that it has a "no boundaries" approach. Whereas city teams compete solely within their own wards, the Babe Ruth teams compete city wide.

"It is important for us to have our kids interact with teams from different areas of the city," Bitondo said. "Not only are the kids interacting, but so are the parents. We have had very few problems in this aspect and it seems to be a very rewarding community experience for the areas involved."

Bitondo stresses that the Babe Ruth mission is to teach the fundamentals of the game and a sense of sportsmanship rather than winning. League officials ensure that no team is lopsided with too many good players. The talent is spread out as evenly as possible. No child who wants to play is turned away and rules have been implemented to ensure equal playing time.

"Every child will play in at least two innings of each game and the league has rotational batting, which ensures that even if a player does not get into the field, they will get a chance to bat," she said.

Out of the league’s 42 teams, 36 are dedicated to kids 12 and younger. "We try to focus most of the attention to kids around the age of nine," Bitando explained. "We find that this is around the age when most children pick a sport to become involved with. We aim to teach them as much of the fundamentals we can in a fun environment and it is our hope that many of the kids will continue playing through high school."

However, all is not perfect for the league. "We have only been able to attain playing permits for six fields. This is hardly adequate for the 700 or so kids that play in the league," Bitondo contends. "We have been unable to provide practice fields for all of our teams and obviously you cannot teach kids the game if there is nowhere to practice."

Bitondo praises the hard work of the many volunteers who have stepped up and dedicated their time and money to the league. She doesn’t hesitate to point her finger at the city’s recreation department for problems. "The city failed to adequately run their own league and now they will not help us with ours," she charges.

League officials have been fighting to get city permits that will allow them to play on public fields, but these attempts have been stalled in the slow bureaucratic process that characterizes many of the dealings with the D.C. government. Bitondo said the fight to get playing fields is an "issue that you raise in October and don’t get an answer to until March."

"Our teams provide the only outlet for Little League play in many of the areas of the city, so the uncooperative nature of the city recreation department has been extremely frustrating," she said.

Even without the city’s support, the Babe Ruth League has continued to develop and has even gained the support of city council members Harold Brail, Jack Evans and Vincent Orange. Outstanding support has also been received from community members, Bitondo said. Last season, the Adams Morgan and Mount Pleasant neighborhoods entirely funded two teams.

Games are played every Wednesday and Friday evening at 6:15 at such places as Ketcham Elementary, Emmery Field, Tyler Elementary and Takoma Park. However, the spring season is coming to end. Citywide playoffs will begin June 14 and the season will culminate July 10 when a D.C. all-star team will participate in the Maryland State Tournament.

Registration for the fall season is open to all who wish to join. The $50 fee includes uniforms, equipment and field rentals. For further information regarding the league, call (202) 337-2843.

Copyright 1999, The Common Denominator