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BRISTOL — For the first time in more than 60 years, there will be only one Little League in Bristol in the summer of 2021.
Since 1954, Bristol has been a multiple little league city, but declining enrollments over the past decade and other circumstances led to the city’s three leagues agreeing to a merger during the course of last summer.
In late October, Little League International approved the merger of McCabe-Waters, Forestville and Edgewood Little Leagues into the new Bristol Little League. Once the merger was approved the board of directors of each of the three leagues voted to disband their leagues and send representatives to the board of directors of the new league. Each league nominated five people to serve on the new board and work has been underway since early November to combine the assets and the facilities of the three leagues into one all-encompassing organization.
Bristol Little League will continue to operate out of all three local facilities, which gives the new league expanded opportunities for practice facilities as well as game scheduling. The biggest difference is teams will be drawn city wide instead of from one geographic area of the city.
Scott Lodge, the former president of Forestville Little League, was elected president of the new league. Jeff Robinson, who had served as president at McCabe-Waters, has taken on the role of treasurer and is faced with the task of merging the funds of three organizations into one, as well as maintaining integrity of grant money allocated to specific projects at each site. Chris Murtaugh, who was president at Edgewood, has taken a long planned retirement but will continue to serve as a consultant to the new league.
Each of the city’s leagues at one time had more than 600 players and dozens of teams. But over the past decade those numbers have declined dramatically as the little league aged population has declined at the same time as AAU and travel teams have grown more popular and sports like soccer and lacrosse have turned into year-round operations that are competing for the same age group.
For the last four years none of the local leagues has had enough teams to operate on an independent schedule. The leagues have run a joint schedule, along with Plainville, in order to have enough games and variety of opposition. The covid closures added to the problem this summer.
“League membership for each of the three leagues was in flux,” Lodge said, “but there was no doubt we were going down city-wide.”
“We’ve been discussing this for years,” Robinson added, “especially as we increased the amount of our interleague play. We were struggling to provide the best experience possible for all players due to many circumstances that arose from declining participation as the years went on.”
Maintaining the traditions of the three leagues was a key factor in the merger discussions. A plan a few years ago to decrease the leagues from three to two fell apart as the leagues and their supporters struggled to maintain their identities.
Little League baseball began in Bristol in 1950 when McCabe-Waters was incorporated, but by 1953, the city had grown too large for one league and the International organization declared McCabe-Waters ineligible for tournament play. Forestville Little League was organized the following year and Edgewood was spun off five years later. The city has operated with three leagues ever since.
Over the years, all three leagues have enjoyed plenty of success. Both Forestville and McCabe-Waters have sent teams to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pennsylvania and Edgewood has had a number of its junior and senior level teams participate in national events. Over that same time rivalries have developed among the leagues that have complicated previous merger attempts.
In light of that tradition, the merger decision was a difficult one, but in the end, each of the three boards felt it was necessary.
“Members wanted to be a part of something that we all could rally behind,” Lodge said. “It was extremely important that we keep all three facilities. None of us wanted to wait and see if they could survive alone, especially with what covid did to the Little League experience this past year. It showed that we are stronger together than as individual leagues. The time to do it was now with everyone so willing to work together to make this a success — putting history aside and being willing to take a risk with the possibility of forming something greater for the children and families of our city.”
“Decrease in participation led to a decrease in the number of teams playing in our league thus forcing us to look outside of the league to field games for our players to enjoy,” he said. “This coupled with the decline in the number of volunteers each year made our board realize that we needed to entertain a change. Our upper division was already merged per se in that any player of the age of 13 was playing under the Edgewood name, but with players combined from Forestville and McCabe Waters. Thus it made sense for us to explore the same opportunity for our players 12 and under to combine resources to make one league.”
All three former presidents see great benefits in the combination.
“The players will benefit from the combination of coaching resources,” Robinson said, “as well as shared best practices for coaching among the three leagues, increased talent and competition from being able to place kids in the skill appropriate levels and the excitement of having more teams at each level.”
“This will give everyone the chance to play with their friends regardless of where they go to school or live,” Lodge added. “It will also give the opportunity to make new friendships and build a new community. Players will be in a better position to play to their skill level. We will not be trying to ‘force’ majors numbers for the sake of skill development. Now, everyone will have a chance to grow and it will really benefit our AAA division. I think we all had to rob from that level a bit in the last few years.”
While there will be one league, players and families may not see a lot of changes in the way their Little League season operates next summer. The three leagues have already been playing a combined schedule in majors and minors and teams have been playing at all three facilities for a number of years. That will continue, but there will no longer be designated “home fields” for teams and at least at the majors and AAA levels, team rosters will be drawn citywide. League officials plan to keep T-Ball and lower level minors teams structured more on a neighborhood model.
“Players will have the opportunity to participate with their friends they may have gone to school with yet lived on a different street or part of town that would filter to another league,” Murtaugh said. “We have seen this a lot as the players get older and enter into middle school for instance. Not only that, but it will increase the comradery amongst the kids and promote the opportunity for sportsmanship to flourish within one league and not build cross town rivalries.”
All three presidents agree there will be some hiccups in the early going.
“Families will form a new dynamic with people they may not have interacted with before,” Lodge said, “playing and practicing in different facilities from what they may have been used to. We’ve done some of that in the past for Interleague play but, it may create a little bit of a temporary hardship.”
“However, it should allow teams to practice on real baseball fields instead of random areas or open fields,” he added. “Keeping and using all three facilities is such a major win for us. It really can’t be understated that having three great baseball facilities at everyone’s disposal will allow for a better experience overall. That and seeing Bristol on their uniforms come district playoffs. Knowing you’re playing for your city. Not just your league.”
Two of the three facilities are located on city property and operated by the leagues under a long-term lease agreement. The Edgewood facility is operated by the Little League Eastern Regional office. Mayor Ellen Zoppo-Sassu has pledged the continued support of the city.
“I am very excited about the three leagues joining forces under one Bristol Little League banner while honoring the history of the three organizations,” she said. “The City and the Parks Department will be meeting with the new board of directors to see how we can assist, as we all look forward to spring 2021 and coming together for their opening ceremonies.”
The new league and its board of directors are also looking forward to the start of the new season.
“Hopefully, by the spring we can get back to more of what we are used to,” Lodge said. “Having to not offer little league baseball to every eligible and willing child last year still hurts. If we can get back to what we were used to then it’s still baseball. Everyone will still have an opportunity to play baseball and make friendships that will last a lifetime.”
“I think you’ll see a renewed excitement around Little League baseball in the city of Bristol,” Robinson said. “A greater sense of community. Family fun, huge smiles on the faces of the players, proud parents in the stands cheering on their children, baseball in its purest form and the best group of coaches and volunteers anyone could hope for.”