Amateur baseball, CMWS face growing challenges

The Connie Mack World Series is facing new challenges and could see major changes in the near future as the dynamics of amateur baseball are changing across the country

Karl Schneider

FARMINGTON — Baseball and Farmington have been synonymous for decades, primarily because of the Connie Mack World Series. But as the landscape of youth baseball shifts, so does the CMWS and the future of the tournament.

Baseball fans enter Ricketts Park for the Connie Mack City Tournament on July 16 in Farmington.

“Specifically for Connie Mack, that whole age group has changed dramatically in the last three years and is continuing to evolve. I think we’ll continue to see an evolution, and the Connie Mack will become more of a 17U world series,” American Amateur Baseball Congress President Richard Neely said.

In recent years, changes among college baseball programs and in professional baseball have altered 18U amateur baseball.

More and more often, college programs are encouraging their recruits to arrive on campus earlier, having them enroll in summer classes so they can get extra time with the team and coaching staff.

At the professional level, the Major League Baseball draft has also taken a toll on teams and tournaments. Players drafted in this year’s amateur draft were required to sign with their MLB teams by July 15, making any player who signed ineligible for the series. That was the case for the 2015 CMWS Most Valuable Player, the East Cobb Yankees’ Carter Kieboom, who became ineligible to play for the Yankees during this year’s CMWS because he signed with the Washington Nationals after being selected with the 28th overall pick.

The changes at the college and professional levels aren’t the only issues challenging the future of 18U amateur baseball.

At the 2016 CMWS Southeast Regional Qualifier — a region with a rich baseball history — just six teams competed. Two of the teams were part of the East Cobb Baseball organization, and two others were part of the Nashville Knights Baseball organization. The other two teams were the Florida Legends and Louisiana Elite.

James Beavers — the coach of the East Cobb Yankees, who have won two of the last three CMWS titles and this year’s Southeast Regional — and Neely said multiple factors have played a role in the declining number of teams in the regional qualifier. The event traditionally has attracted eight to 10 teams.

Baseball fans watch the Connie Mack City Tournament on July 16 at Ricketts Park in Farmington.

According to Beavers, the uncertain future for teams following a world series qualifier has made them hesitant about registering for the tournaments. The AABC tourneys are the end of the season for most teams, although the winners have to hastily make arrangements for a world series appearance on the other side of the country — all while life away from the baseball diamond begins to take priority.

“You have several things fighting against you. (High) school starts (Aug. 1 in Georgia), and we’ll probably have eight kids miss the first week of school for (the CMWS), so that creates an issue. And football is pretty big here, and they’re starting practices,” Beaver said. “You run into a lot of different things here in the South.”

Another factor deterring teams from AABC competition is the simple fact that they have more options than teams have had in the past. Other organizations, such as Perfect Game and Premier Baseball, have grown and are drawing teams to their tournaments and world series instead of AABC events.

All those issues are threatening the future of the AABC, and, in turn, the CMWS. Neely said the AABC plans to address the challenges the organization is facing at its annual meeting on Nov. 1 in Santa Fe.

“There will be a lot of changes that we’ll be discussing at our annual meeting this year — changing formats and qualifying events. There will be a variety of topics being discussed and that we’ll be looking at,” Neely said. “We have some very strong AABC cities that are changing and even locally at different age groups that don’t support us anymore. We have to look at those things because it affects where we place the national tournaments.”

The final and maybe most threatening issue facing amateur baseball is the steep decline in the number of kids playing baseball nationwide.

Zoey Sanchez, 8, left, Kalen Gunter and Rachel Sanchez cheer during a Connie Mack City Tournament game on July 16 in Farmington.

From 2002 to 2013, participation in baseball for children ages 7 to 17 dropped 41 percent from 9 million to 5.3 million, according to a 2015 article in the Wall Street Journal.

“Absolutely, it’s a major concern. All the different boards and groups that I meet with in the youth organizations have seen a definite shift and change in the number of kids playing baseball,” Neely said. “It’s been a pretty major issue for AABC.”

In an effort to help attract younger players to baseball and the AABC, the AABC will hold its 9U Jackie Robinson World Series here Wednesday through Sunday, July 21. It’s the first time the JRWS has been held in Farmington, and the dates of the tournament will overlap the opening weekend of the CMWS with the hope of hooking the youngsters to the AABC and CMWS brand.

“We think it’s a great tool to help sell the AABC,” Neely said of having the JRWS in Farmington, “and getting the kids involved in the Connie Mack (World Series) at a young age may help plant that seed that they want to grow up and play in the Connie Mack World Series.”

Karl Schneider is the sports editor for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4648.