TERRE HAUTE —
Despite the ever-present challenges facing youth baseball organizations, Little League District 4 Administrator Mike Howard feels his organization has a solid footing when he steps down from his position later this summer.
“My kids are getting older and I want to be with them in the summertime, so I just can’t give [Little League] the dedicated attention it deserves,” Howard said. Howard is also a bit busy in his professional life too, as Director of Operations in the Dept. of Facilities Operations at Rose-Hulman.
Howard is completing a five-year tenure, his first two years closing out former administrator Roy Patterson’s term, then was elected to a three-year term. Howard has witnessed many accomplishments during his time.
To wit, District 4 hosted the state finals for all three levels (9-10, 10-11, 11-12 age groups) for three straight years, culminating in host team Terre Haute North winning the state championship in 2010. He’s also seen firsthand LL’s implementation of a pitch count.
“Travel baseball, in a sense, hasn’t affected Little League that much,” Howard said. “I have seen All-Star teams manipulate their travel schedules so as to not be in conflict with Little League tournaments.”
As for pitch count limits, Howard feels after some early grumbling, it has become an accepted part of the “new” Little League.
“At first, when pitch count was rolled out in 2008, many people were resistant to the change,” Howard said. Under the new rules, pitchers are limited to a maximum 85 pitches a game, with many other incremental levels determining numbers of days off between appearances.
“Now these same coaches are more used to it, have learned to strategize better,” Howard said. “One coach has used six pitchers, each throwing just the limit of 20 pitches a game so they are available to pitch every day.
“Now you need at least three or four good pitchers. Scoreboards are being modified to take pitch counts into account too. It’s here to stay.”
Howard feels all four Little League organizations in District 4 appear to be doing well, saying, “Most have maintained or lncreased [numbers] the last few years.”
Howard estimates Terre Haute North, which is in its 50th year, currently has about 500 youngsters involved, West Vigo around 350-360, while Clinton is at a similar level with about 320-350 players.
Terre Haute South has seen it’s numbers dip in recent years, Howard admitted. South is currently serving about 160 youngsters, down from about the 300-350 range of just a few years ago.
“South has increased its numbers the last two years, especially at the lower age level,” Howard said. “But their numbers at the 10,- 11- and 12-year old levels are not as high as in recent years, so they have no All-Star teams entered in the tournament this year.”
To show LL’s growth, Clinton has expressed interest in expanding their boundary into Parke County, Howard says, while West Terre Haute has started Little League sponsored girls softball, along with junior league (13-15 years old) and senior league (15-17 years old) baseball this year.
“The West Terre Haute junior league will play in the state tournament in Greenwood later this month [July 25-29],” Howard said.
Howard also stated Little League will offer a 50/70 (50-foot pitching, 70-foot baselines) leagues beginning next season for ages 11, 12 and 13.
“They are hoping to retain kids for Little League one more year,” Howard said. “This level also has the third dropped strike, leadoffs and steals. This will help Little League better compete with travel ball. No decisions [at the local level] have been made on this yet.”
Cal Ripken has offered the 50/70 level baseball now for two years,. The local Riley Recreation League is hosting 50/70 Cal Ripken state tournaments for the 11- and 12-year old levels starting later this week.
Going forward, Joe Dunagan will replace Howard. Dunagan got involved with the Terre Haute South Little League this year, starting as coaching coordinator, then before the season was over was asked to be vice-president.
“Did a lot of work with the concession stand, taking care of the fields, picking up trash,” Dunagan laughed. “Anything we can do to help the kids out. Try to give them a good facility.”
Dunagan has been a PE/health teacher and athletic director at Cloverdale High School for two years and was an athletic trainer at Rose-Hulman for 10 years. He’s also worked during football camps of the Indianapolis Colts and Cleveland Browns.
“I grew up in Danville, Ill. and played Little League ball, got a son now that plays Little League baseball,” Dunagan said. “This kind of fell in my lap, said we need some help here so I said ‘alright, I’ll help out.’”
Dunagan could be been working alongside Howard during last weekend’s District 4 Tournament.
“He’s letting me job shadow him during the District Tournament … Mike’s had a great experience with Little League,” Dunagan said. “I’ve spent time the last few nights talking to coaches, administrators at the parks already. We’ve all got some ideas and thoughts that maybe we want to bring to the table. Help see if we can’t build some positive momentum and energy for Little League baseball.
While Howard is looking forward to spending more time with his family during the summertime, a part of him will miss the Little League experience.
“I started at [TH] North as a parent, then was president there for three years, then five years at the District level,” Howard said. “I’ve worked with a lot of good people, made a lot of new friends.
“I’ve made a few enemies too,” he laughed. “But any decision I made was always in the best interest of the kids.”
Howard has offered Dunagan his availability to serve as an Assistant District Administrator “for a year or two. There is a lot of paperwork and rules to learn. I just want this to be a seamless transition.”