It’s hard to miss the Astros when they take the field. Dressed in blazing orange uniforms, the players would stand out in nearly any environment, but against the bright green grass of the regional high school field, the contrast seems all the more dramatic.
The Astros, a squad of 14 and 15 year olds, are a bridge, the final stop in Island youth baseball on the way up to the big leagues of high school ball — half the team is actually on the high school team as well. They compete against off-Island teams in the Gateway Babe Ruth program, where athletes use a full-size ballfield instead of the smaller Little League field. Three other Gateway teams play on the Island, with 50 players total, a jump up from 30 players just three years ago.
Little League has been an Island presence for decades, but youth baseball overall has seen a resurgence in recent years, thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of parents and volunteers. In addition to the Gateway Babe Ruth players, 275 kids play in the four levels of Little League — Tee-Ball, Farm League, Minor League and Major League. At the high school level, the only player on the varsity team who didn’t come all the way through the Little League and Babe Ruth programs moved to the Vineyard from off-Island. Everyone else is a lifer.
“The enthusiasm level, the participation level has gone way up, parent involvement has gone way up,” said Kris Lukowitz, former Little League board president and current Astros coach.
“Everything’s just pushing up the lines,” he said. “It’s incredible, it’s changed a lot.”
“[Little League] became more organized, with more attention to detail and coaching,” said current vice-president Adam Bresnick. “There was a little more of a vision of building the program.” It became a clear-cut goal of the board to create a youth program that was more sustainable, which meant expanding the board and the responsibilities of each member so one or two people wouldn’t be tasked with running the entire league.
“One of my goals is to make what we do...easily repeatable, so that new people don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” said current president Lorne Lewis.
Ten years ago, Martha’s Vineyard Little League was incorporated under the guidance of Sam Berlow, whose two children both played through the program, sparking the push towards the cohesiveness the organization enjoys now. Not long after, Mr. Lukowitz began a campaign to improve the Island ballfields, from Veira Park in Oak Bluffs to Manter Field in West Tisbury. In 2009, Jamie McNeely instituted what has become one of Little League’s defining events — the parade that kicks off each season. A Memorial Day ceremony takes place every year at Veira Park, and the season concludes with championship games for the Minor and Major Leagues. In the summer, travel season begins and age-specific teams compete across the Cape and South Shore.
Coaches also began to emphasize mentoring, where younger players in the Minors would practice with an older team, and coaches could get to know each other.
“I think Little League’s taken...a stronger approach to instruct the coaches to instruct the kids,” said Ernie Chaves, whose three children have been playing baseball and softball since Tee-Ball.
“You teach them your love of the game,” Mr. Bresnick said. “That’s the first thing you teach them. Then you teach the game.”
It begins in Tee-Ball, when tots wearing batting helmets that dwarf their heads swing at a ball resting on an adjustable tee. An inning consists of every player on the team getting a hit and traveling around the bases. Parents stand in the infield as first base coach, second base coach, third base coach and home plate batting coach, and keeping players on track. Otherwise somebody’s apt to bring their juice and Goldfish snack out onto the field, or miss first base entirely.
“Between last night’s practice and today’s game, they really started to get it,” said Tee-Ball coach Jenny Royal, whose son plays for the Bees. “They’re a little more aware of the rules.” At the beginning of the season, she said, the players would swarm the ball as one.
Strategy begins to creep in at the Farm League level, for kids ages six through eight. In Farm League parent coaches pitch to the players, but just like Tee-Ball, inning length is determined by how long it takes for each player to get a hit. Many players who started together in Tee-Ball stay with the same group of kids as they move up a level.
During a recent Farm League game between the Sharks and the Bats, seven-year-old Wyatt Nicholson of the Bats made contact, racing down the first-base path and slowing as he neared his goal.
“Run to right here,” encouraged Bats coach Buck Shank, pointing to a spot past the base.
“I remember [playing] Tee-Ball like it was yesterday,” Mr. Shank said after the game. Mr. Shank played while growing up in Ohio. His wife signed him up to coach Tee Ball three years ago, when son Henry was old enough to play. Coaching Little League has been a dream of his for years, he said.
“I’ve been moving up with the kids,” Mr. Shank said. “I’ll probably just keep following it up.”
After Farm League, players move to the Minor Leagues, where kids learn to pitch, and the game becomes more competitive. Once they are nine, they can try out for the Major Leagues. Most Major Leaguers are 10, 11 and 12.
“The best part of being involved from the beginning is you get to see the continuity of maybe having coached kids at the Tee Ball level, and then you pass them off to the high school coaches,” said Little League president Lorne Lewis, whose three sons have all gone through the youth program.
In its long history, Little League has seen a fair share of daughters take the field as well. Unlike many youth sports, the program is co-ed. There are more girls at the Tee Ball and Farm League levels, but some move right up into travel ball before they start softball at the high school. Emily Turney, the only freshman on the varsity softball team this year, was a Little League All-Star when she was younger. This year, three girls play in the Majors and seven play in the Minors.
“[The boys] have been playing with them on their team since Tee Ball,” Mr. Bresnick said. “I like that aspect of it.”
He was hard pressed to decide on his favorite aspect of Little League.
“I could talk for hours about that,” he said. “It’s timeless, and the kids just have fun.”
Mr. Lukowitz and Mr. Chaves both spoke of the constant surprises in watching players improve year after year. Mr. Chaves recalled a player he’d coached in the Minor Leagues who was a baseball late bloomer.
“If you’d asked me then would he be a high school baseball player, I probably would have said absolutely not,” Mr. Chaves said.
The player became a two-year starting catcher on the varsity team. And the reverse can happen, too. A standout Little League player moving up to the Babe Ruth level can get caught off guard as the game becomes a more mental exercise.
“It requires a lot of thought,” Mr. Chaves said.
“You can’t hide. When the ball comes to you, everyone’s watching,” Mr. Bresnick said. Sometimes you do great things, he said, and sometimes you don’t. In either case, the way a player learns to handle the aftermath is a valuable life lesson.
Recent standouts of the youth program include Will Stewart, last year’s top pitcher on the high school team, and Jack Roberts, a senior captain of this year’s team. Jack will play for the Martha’s Vineyard Sharks this summer, and for Williams College in the fall.
“When it culminates in a kid going to Williams, that’s nice,” said Sam Berlow, who worked with Jack throughout Little League and now assists high school head coach Gary Simmons.
“I love it,” Jack said of the sport. “It’s a team sport, but it’s also individual.”
On a recent Saturday, both elements were on display during a game between the Pirates and A’s in the Major Leagues. The game was close, with both teams pulling off three-run rallies, and the victory ultimately coming down to the very last out. The A’s won.
“I just love feeling all that pressure,” A’s player Mikey Cosgrave said after the game.
“I don’t care what happens during the game,” teammate Avery Villegas said. “As long as I’m on the field.”
For more photos, visit Take Me Out to the Little League Ballpark.
Read more about a baseball field improvement plan at New Field Planned for Travel Baseball.