Cynicism didn’t come easily at the Falls Church Kiwanis Little League’s Opening Day festivities last Saturday.
Oh, there were a lot of things that on paper sure seem mockable and arcane. There was the parade of kids, including tee-ballers too small to look anything but uncozy in a baseball uniform, through the streets of Pimmit Hills, one of the few remaining Fairfax County neighborhoods that can be called working-class.
And at parade’s end came an old-school pep talk from the town’s mayor—“All we ask of our kids is that they try their hardest,” she said—and a New Testament convocation by the league chaplain from the pitcher’s mound on the main field at Westgate Park: “We thank you for the opportunity to play ball,” he told the Lord before all assembled, “and even for umpires.”
A hitting instructor for the league, a former college star now in his late 20s, forced the crowd to relive his own career highlights, which came as a 12-year-old Little Leaguer: “I was the first pitcher in the history of Reston Little League to beat Vienna!” he said.
Then there was the pledge (“I trust in God/I love my country”) that all players recited aloud as the ceremony ended and the ballplaying commenced.
But under a sunny morning sky and on a freshly cut and lined baseball diamond, none of this seemed corny. The proceedings, repeated in thousands of communities across the country on April weekends year after year, made that long-dead General Motors ad campaign—“Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie, and Chevrolet”—seem downright profound.
“I can’t be more excited about this day and how beautiful it is,” league president and Little League lifer John Boyle declared during his time with the microphone. “It’s Opening Day!”
Little League, founded in 1939, monopolized this country’s youth sports culture every summer for decades.
But it’s been under a well-documented assault for some time now. The insurgents include amorphous individualistic pastimes such as video games and skateboards, as well as sports confederations for soccer, basketball, and, especially in the D.C. area, lacrosse. In recent years, Little League has also been wounded by rival newfangled baseball groups, including Cal Ripken Baseball and an assortment of travel teams for kids who are either themselves too hardcore for the traditional setup or have fathers too hardcore for the traditional setup.
Falls Church Kiwanis has felt the pain. In the mid-1970s, when I was a lousy catcher with this league’s cellar-dwelling squad, the Odd Fellows Raiders, there were four divisions with a total of two dozen teams in the majors division, for 11- and 12-year-olds in the Falls Church area. (The Chevy campaign debuted in 1974, the height of the McKenna Era.) Despite the subsequent boom in the region’s overall population, the number of kids playing for Falls Church Kiwanis Little League has dwindled drastically; there is now just a single six-team division.
Yet compared to many other Little Leagues in the area, Falls Church has fought off the baseball malaise. At the opening ceremonies, Boyle got perhaps his largest round of applause when he announced, “We have more children registered this season than last season!”
The increase is slight—430 kids this year compared to 419 for the summer of 2006—but still. When the majors division (also mainly 11- and 12-year-olds) of neighboring confederation Mason District Little League whittled down to just four teams, Falls Church offered up its teams for intraleague play just so the kids in the rival league wouldn’t have to play the same opponents every other week.
And for the last two seasons, Falls Church Kiwanis all-star teams have won the Virginia District 4 postseason championship, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary this summer. Prior to the 2005 title, no Falls Church squad had won the district since 1959.
Boyle is among the chief reasons Falls Church has more than held its own. He’s been with the league on and off since the late 1980s.
He grew up the son of an oft-relocated IBM employee. “This was back when IBM stood for ‘I’ve Been Moved,’ so I lived all over the place,” he says. But one constant of Boyle’s childhood was his father’s support of the neighborhood Little League, whatever neighborhood that was.
Those traits didn’t skip a generation. So when Boyle graduated from the University of Virginia and settled in Falls Church in 1987, he immediately sought out the local league and volunteered his services.
“My dad was such a great coach, and I learned a lot from watching him,” says Boyle. “I didn’t have any kids of my own when I moved here, but I wanted to get involved.”
He’s since held practically every position from coach to umpire to president for Falls Church Kiwanis, while putting three of his own kids—a son and two daughters—through the program.
“They’re doing a really good job with the kids they have,” says Richard Sullivan, a current board member for Falls Church Kiwanis who grew up in Pimmit Hills, played in the league in the 1960s, and has been volunteering in some capacity ever since. “John and the others who run the league work hard, and occasionally take advice from old-timers like me who tell them the way things used to be. They recruit kids very well and make it very affordable if not free for the kids who want to play, and they’re providing year-round training for kids once they get them in so that they’ll stay in the league.”
Boyle says that his weekdays during the season consist of coming home from his job with a nonprofit insurance association, yelling for his kids to get in the car as he changes clothes, and heading off for Little League practices or games. He says there are others just as dedicated in his league and every other successful Little League in the country. Beyond his managerial and administrative duties, about the only spare time Boyle has each summer, he says, comes on Sundays, when no kids’ games or practices are scheduled.
And that’s the day Boyle, a self-described good Catholic, spends playing in the Ponce de Leon League, an association for adults of any talent level who won’t hang up their cleats.
“I may go to hell for doing that,” he says. “But I love baseball.”