Mansfield king of LL facility hill

Posted Aug. 16, 2009, at 10:31 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — These are the weeks when the frequent-flyer miles add up for Steve Keener.

Little League International’s president and chief executive officer was on hand for Saturday night’s opening ceremonies for the 49th Senior League World Series, as well as the first game of pool play — Bangor’s 1-0 victory over Cornwall, Ontario, on Sunday afternoon.

This stop was directly after a brief stay in Huntington, W. Va., for the Little League Baseball Southeast regional, and there were visits to the Senior League Softball World Series and the Big League Baseball championships.

And it’s back to Little League headquarters in Williamsport, Pa., on Monday.

“I’m on the last leg of 12 or 13 flights in seven days,” said Keener. “It’s a busy time of the year, but it’s the kind of busy you enjoy.”

While Little League baseball in the ages 11-12 division has become a juggernaut of sorts in recent years, with heightened television exposure lending to the popularity of the youth sports, Little League programs at other age groups — such as the Senior League which involves players ages 14-16 — are less populous and less popular in the public’s perception.

Little League’s most recent contract with ESPN and ABC TV has gotten national TV exposure for other related events such as the SLWS title game, but beyond that the Junior League, Senior League and Big League tournaments are more self-sustaining entities.

“Essentially Little League Baseball International provides the funding for the teams to get here and get home,” said Keener. “We pay for all the travel, and then we provide the uniforms, the awards, the jackets that they get.

“What local has to do is to provide housing and meals and generate revenue to support those costs. They couldn’t do it without a tremendous corps of volunteer support, which they’re fortunate to have here in Bangor as well as the other sites.”

That such locales as Bangor and other host sites have had to deal with harsh economic times is not lost on Keener, Little League’s CEO since 2001.

“I’m sure the economy in many places has had an impact on the ability of the local hosts to seek financial support for the tournament from local sponsors,” said Keener. “Businesses are hurting obviously, and families are hurting in many, many places.

It’s really a testament to [SLWS tournament director] Mike Brooker and the folks who work up here. They haven’t missed a beat. They’ve had to work a little harder, and it’s been a struggle, but it’s gotten done; they’re here again, and these kids are going to have the same experience that the teams that have been here before them have had. My hat’s off to them for making this happen in a particularly difficult environment.”

Keener said travel logistics are the biggest challenge in staging such a tournament in Bangor, but it’s offset in part by the host facility, Mansfield Stadium.

“We don’t play a World Series on any better facility than Mansfield Stadium,” he said. “We have nice facilities around the country, but none any nicer than this.”

Keener added that Bangor has developed a strong reputation among those who participate in Little League Baseball at all levels.

“The best testament to that is when you run into the teams and district officials six months from now, they’re going to be telling people at their meetings, ‘you want to go to Bangor,’” he said. “That’s probably the best testament, because they’re talking about the stadium, the fine facilities, and of the friendliness of the community and of the people who run the tournament.

“They might not have won a game here, but they’ll say ‘you want to go to Bangor, you’ll never forget the experience,’ and that’s really what it’s all about.”

Senior League Baseball currently fields about 3,000 programs, less than half that of Little League Baseball, said Keener.

And while he would like to see growth at the Senior League level, Keener is fairly content with its current levels — with the possibility of future growth more in play internationally.

“Baseball at the Senior League age level is a challenge because when the kids get to the age for Senior League they’re also starting in with high school baseball,” he said. “There are lots of places where high school coaches have a pretty significant influence on what the kids play outside of high school, and there are some estab-lished teenage programs that high school coaches are involved in, so now you’re competing against American Legion baseball and some other levels of teenage baseball.

“Where we see the growth of Senior League baseball is in places where you have established a very strong local Little League program. Very often that’s where you’ll see the Senior League program continue to grow because the community has gotten behind it and stays involved with it.”

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