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As his 5-year-old daughter Heather Schrotall warmed up for her first T-ball game, the excitement in her father’s eyes was easy to see as he cheered from his seat in the stands. This was only his daughter’s second time even stepping onto the diamond, Jim Schrotall said, because of an illness and the unpredictable April weather in Chicago.

“Opening day is a big deal for the kids,” Schrotall said. “It’s a sign that the summer is coming and a chance to meet new friends.”

The start of the Little League season is a joyous time for kids and parents across the country and Saturday’s opening day ceremonies here in Forest Park were no different. But the 2007 season will also be a challenging one, according to league President Anthony Lazzara, as a newly elected board attempts to build participation rates and boost its funding.

Research over the last decade suggests that children’s interest in baseball is waning. In a 1998 study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, baseball ranked fifth as the most-played sport among youth ages 12 to 17; for children ages 6 to 11, baseball ranked fourth. The National Little League office is studying possible rule changes that would give additional playing time to marginal and lower-level players, which is a contingent of players likely to give the sport up.

Here in Forest Park, the numbers of kids in Little League are up from last year, but Lazzara is quick to point out that a huge number of kids aren’t playing ball.

Currently, the Forest Park league has 256 players, including boys and girls. This count is equal to about 20 percent of the public school district’s student population. However, the league’s players also include kids from neighboring communities such as Maywood and Bellwood, so the amount of Forest Park residents participating in the league is actually even less.

“I am not sure why we only have less than 20 percent of the Forest Park kids,” Lazzara said. “Perhaps it’s because of the many programs the park district offers. But, we have to step it up a notch. We’re trying to do promotional events like carwashes and the winter carnival, and a first registration in January when kids have nothing to do. These events have been effective.”

By comparison, the River Forest Youth Baseball League has approximately 630 boys and girls, according to Patrick Murphy, president of that league. According to River Forest District 90’s website, there are 1,351 students enrolled. Murphy estimated that 98 percent of the league’s players are River Forest residents.

The Forest Park board’s proactive approach to attracting more players in the community is producing results. The league received almost half of its players (115) during first registration in January. As a whole, player participation is up 14 percent from 2006, according to Dave Pyan, the board’s treasurer. Numbers from 2005 and earlier could not be obtained, because, according to Pyan, this is the first year that the board will create a database of player information.

According to Lazzara, the last board held office for eight years before resigning and encouraging community members to seek office. Parents whose children played in the most recent season are the voters in Little League elections.

Unlike previous Little League leaders that did not rely on fundraising, the current board has tried loading up each possible financial base, so to speak.

“Historically, the Forest Park Little League did not partake in any fundraising efforts and relied on the support of its sponsors, proceeds from the Dugout Café [a concession stand] and player registration,” Pyan said. “This year we expanded out fundraising efforts to include all business in the Forest Park area.”

The Forest Park Little League is a chartered member of the National Little League Organization, the same organization that holds the famous Little League World Series towards the end of summer. The Forest Park league contains several divisions for boys and girls: co-ed T-Ball (ages 5-6), Rookie (7-8), Minor (9-10), Major (11-12), Junior (13-14) and Senior (15-16).

The benefits of the National Little League organization are numerous, according to Lazzara.

“It’s not like we [the board] are just winging it and figuring it out ourselves how to teach the kids,” Lazzara said. “The national organization offers a lot of skills training and provides all the tools we need to teach our kids. They come out with new rules based on research and experts’ opinions to help encourage players and their skills. This organization has been a reputable one for a long time.”

In its short tenure, the board has of course endured the expected curve balls, but has also experienced some victories.

“The most challenging aspect for the board would be trying to satisfy everyone-parents, kids, board members and everyone-at the same time,” Lazzara said. “Not surprisingly, dealing with the kids has been the easiest and most rewarding. We hope they learn the importance of teamwork, life lessons, and how support your teammates.”