Little League in Wallowa County tends to develop a hardy bunch of ball players.
From April through much of June, a good percentage of the county's age 9 through 12 population can be found on almost any evening of the week - rain, shine or snow - dueling with bats on ball fields throughout the county.
Also hardy are the volunteers that have kept the program alive through the decades since it was introduced in Wallowa County, back in the 1960s. There's always a worry that the program won't come together each year, especially when only a core group of six to eight to ten show up for organizational meetings. And the number of teams and children are also down, reflecting fewer elementary kids in the county.
But somehow, when it's time to call "Play ball" in Wallowa County every April, Little League comes alive.
Little League has a reputation of being competitive, and teams in the Wallowa Valley Little League Association do enjoy a good fight. The regular season is over now for 2003, and attention has turned to the annual All-Star battles that begin this weekend.
"We play to win," admits major girl's All-Star team manager Angie Neil without apology. "I feel if you are going to play, the goal is to win. Not at any cost, of course. ... But when you lose you learn your weaknesses, and what you need to work on."
Neil has two 12-year-olds completing their final year of Little League, twins Tonya and Trenton. She has helped coach her daughter's Little League softball teams for the past four years, after a stint as a T-ball coach, while husband Ron has coached son Trent's baseball teams. Both of the young Neils will be playing on All-Star teams.
"They love it," said Angie, whose Devil's team ended
the season with a 14-0 record. She notes that the Wallowa Valley girls All-Stars teams of the last three years have finished second twice and third once in district softball games, and feels confident the local players will be
competitive this year. "Pendleton is the team we need to beat," she said.
Little League nationwide also has a reputation of having parents who are almost fanatical fans. While local Little League parents are faithful - and hardy - cheerleaders, however, they tend to get good marks.
"My parents bend over to help however they can," said Rick Christman of Enterprise, coach of the girls minors All-Stars as well as the Enterprise Bulldogs.
Mother of minor boy all-star Cody Green, with an older son graduated on to Babe Ruth: Shelly Green, Wallowa, is a veteran Little League mother.
She acknowledged the competitive spirit of local games, but said she doesn't feel the widespread reputation of Little League parents as being almost cutthroat in support of their teams holds true here. "It's pretty mellow here," she said. "The competition is there, and parents cheer on their kids, but they also sometimes root for kids they know on other teams."
When coaches and parents are asked what the kids get out of Little League competition, the benefits appear to be many.
"They've got to have teamwork. They've got to have patience. They've got to listen, or they don't get the job done," said Green. "They also get confidence for themselves."
"Competition, teamwork and fun," said Christman. "I think it shows them that the only way they are going to win is teamwork. One star athlete can't do it alone. It takes teamwork."
Learning the love of the game and developing strong friendships are also positive aspects of the Little League program which was founded in 1949 in Pennsylvania and introduced to Wallowa County in 1964.
According to figures provided by Wallowa Valley Little League Association President Cliff Conrad, there are currently 36 baseball players registered in the three major (age 11 and 12) boys' teams; 48 in four minor (age 9 and 10) boys' teams; and 64 in the five girls' softball teams, in which all ages play together until the All-Star teams are formed at the end of the season.
Most of the 12 teams have two or three coaches, so you add up the numbers and there are a lot of volunteers involved, many of them parents who coach on their own children's team.
Among them are the Neils and Warren Wilson of Wallowa, who is a boys major All-Star coach.
"I love the sport and I love to work with kids," said Wilson, who has worked with the Little League for a number of years. His son, Andrew, is a member of the All-Stars this year as a 12-year-old, and Wilson said he will bow out after this year, maybe moving on to Babe Ruth involvement.
He notes that though he and a number of others involved in the program will probably move on next year, there are others who will step forward and take their place. "There are a lot of quality people coming up. It's a volunteer program, and that's what it takes to keep going."
"I don't think it will die," said Conrad, who admits that the number of teams has dropped in the last few years. "Someone always steps up to the plate." With a very long association with the youth organization, he should know. Conrad is now 49 and remembers playing Little League as a 12 year during its very first year in Wallowa. Then he helped his dad, Wes, coach for a few years after that. Though Conrad's own son Sam is now 14 and playing Babe Ruth, Conrad agreed to serve at the association's head this year, after acting as treasurer. "I think it may be easier if you don't have a kid playing," he admits.
In addition to players, coaches and parents, Conrad notes that the businesses who sponsor teams are also extremely important to Little League, since he estimates it costs about $8,000 per year for such things as uniforms and equipment to keep the program.
Coach Rick Christman is among those in the program who foresees a long future of Little League involvement . A graduate of Wallowa County's Little League program as a boy, who coached several years as a younger man, Christman now coaches the team of his oldest daughter, Alix, 10. He also has a son, Duncan, starting Little League and a daughter, Stephanie, who just played her first year of T-ball.
"I love it," said Christman. "There's nothing more thrilling than watching a girl catch a fly ball or make a good play. The coach's get more excited than the players."