Little League fever gripped the state last summer when New Orleans – Eastbank made its run to and through the Little League World Series en route to becoming world champions.
That fever is soon to hit even closer to home for residents in the River Parishes.
A Little League charter franchise has been approved with a home base of St. Charles, St. John the Baptist and St. James parishes for the upcoming baseball season, with plans to hopefully add softball and Challenger (special needs children) division teams down the line.
Among those leading the push to establish the local franchise was Blake Benedetto, who said this has been in the works since August, just after Eastbank’s big win.
“Timing is everything,” Benedetto said. “There’s no greater time to open up a Little League franchise than now, after what those guys did on Eastbank. They kind of paved the way for us. They’ve recreated and reenergized youth baseball on the local front.”
Benedetto said the plan is to start small at first, given the relatively late start the charter will have compared to other teams. Plans are to offer baseball teams for each of the 9, 10, 11 and 12-year-old age groups, with 12 to 14 players on each roster. He says the group wants each team to have at least 16 games, so everyone’s participation is worthwhile.
“And hopefully this is something that brings the River Parishes together. Not just St. James or St. Charles or St. John, but everyone coming together to compete at a state and even national level,” Benedetto said.
He called it an additional avenue for athletes to play in addition to recreation and travel ball. Benedetto said the new Little League teams will work with the schedules of those playing on other teams as to not interfere with those outside games, and thus to draw additional participation. This is meant as an addition, not to subtract from other teams, he said.
“Kids will have the option to still play with their travel team, their school ball team, and so forth,” said Benedetto, who has coached travel baseball for the past 13 years. “If school ball, for example, interferes with a league game, you’ll have an excused absence. We’re letting travel ball kids know we’ll work with you. This is an option.”
Benedetto said this was an idea that’s been discussed in the area for years, but at that time the support wasn’t there. This time, there was a different vibe from the start.
“We were watching Eastbank making its run and we’re talking. Of course, someone says ‘You know, with the talent we have out here, we can put together a team that can compete.’ So I finally say, ‘Why don’t we?’ So we sent in an email, made a few calls, put together a board and here we are,” he said.
Currently, he and his fellow members of that board are exploring options of where home games will be played. Ideally, games would be hosted in each parish to balance travel for those hailing from each of the parishes, but Benedetto said that may be unrealistic in year one. He said conversations with government officials from each parish are ongoing or otherwise planned to discuss options.
Between the three parishes, the River Parishes team will draw from a population of about 125,000, which he said is about in line with the average for other Little League franchises.
He believes Little League will yield some notable positives. Benedetto said all three parishes have been combating the problem of dwindling participation in local recreation ball due to the growth in popularity of travel ball.
“We’ve needed a little bit of wiggle room to get travel kids back into recreation,” he said. “This is on a different scale, but I think it’s our best shot at the present time.”
Likewise, people crossing parish lines to attend games in each of the three parish bases can only be a boost economically, he said, as opposed to players primarily traveling to play outside of the area.
“You have people going place to place, eating in your local restaurants … so to me, that’s a big deal, keeping things local,” Benedetto said.
One fun result from all of this could be where the teams are slotted division-wise. It seems likely the River Parishes trio would slot in with Eastbank.
Meaning once All-Star play begins, “then, step one, you’re playing the reigning world champions,” Benedetto said.
“We couldn’t be more excited to actually have it happen,” he added. “We doubted it for a little while, because if the process had gone any longer, it would have been difficult to offer it this year. But now we’re ready to rock and roll.”