By Rich Myhre Herald Writer
For young kids, Little League has long been a way to learn and enjoy baseball on an appropriately sized field.
But when kids graduate from Little League at age 13, the jump to playing baseball on a regulation-sized diamond can sometimes be too much, too soon.
With that in mind, Little League put forth a pilot program a few years ago to offer baseball on an intermediate-sized diamond. The program, appropriately called the Intermediate Division, debuted in Snohomish County a year ago and caught on almost at once.
District 1 of Washington State Little League, which is essentially Snohomish County, began with two Intermediate Division teams a year ago, though the teams consolidated into one during the season. But this year district organizers are expecting to field 10 Intermediate Division teams, and they anticipate even more in the future.
Ed Lundberg, the District 1 administrator, calls the Intermediate Division “kind of a transition type of division. … And we’re seeing a lot of excitement with this program. We’re basically keeping kids in (Little League) because they’re not looking elsewhere.”
“We came to the realization that we were losing kids after they were 12 years old,” said Jeff Lockhart, the District 1 Intermediate Division coordinator. “So this division is giving an opportunity for kids to come back to Little League who might otherwise have left for select programs or for other sports. So it’s a good step.”
The standard Little League field has distances of 46 feet from the pitcher’s mound to home plate and 60 feet between bases, while a regulation diamond is 60 feet 6 inches from the mound to the plate and 90 feet between bases. An Intermediate Division field is in the middle — 50 feet from the mound to home plate and 70 feet between bases.
Base runners can lead off, which traditional Little League does not allow, “so they’re playing real baseball,” Lockhart said. “It gives us the opportunity to play at a more advanced level.”
Baseball on an intermediate-sized diamond is not a new concept. Pony League, for example, plays on a field where the distance between bases is 80 feet and the mound-to-plate distance is 54 feet. But until recently, Little League players went directly from the smaller diamond to the regulation-sized field used in the Junior Division, which begins at age 13.
“And the 90-foot diamond is just not an appealing choice for (a lot of) 13 year olds,” said Robert Allen, who coaches Mill Creek Little League’s intermediate team.
The Intermediate Division “serves as a great bridge between the 12-year-old majors players and the juniors with a 90-foot diamond,” Allen added. “The 50-70 dimensions allow them to get into full baseball, where you have leadoffs, balks and (players can wear) steel cleats. It’s very exciting and very fast, and it’s a great transition.”
An initial concern was finding fields that could accommodate the Intermediate Division dimensions. For now, Lundberg said, games are being held at Willis Tucker Park between Snohomish and Mill Creek, where a dirt field allows varying the distances between bases. A portable pitcher’s mound is also used.
According to Lockhart, who also coaches the North Everett Little League intermediate team, the district had about 30 kids playing in the Intermediate Division a year ago. This year the number is around 130, “and my gut feeling is that in 3-5 years you’ll see the Intermediate Division being what the Majors Division is right now,” he said. “I see it getting that big.”
Lundberg agrees. “For a long time, Little League was the only thing to do in the spring,” he said. But with select baseball programs available and with the growing popularity of sports like soccer and lacrosse, “it’s pretty competitive out in the community in terms of what families and kids choose to do.
“I really believe we’re talking about Little League adapting to what the families and communities want,” he said.