Wednesday, Aug. 22, 2007

Little League baseball comes to Bethesda

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Charles E. Shoemaker⁄The Gazette
James Hester, age 6, wears the uniform of the newly formed Bethesda Little League team.
For as long as he can remember, Bethesda resident Brant Hester has been a big fan and an avid follower of the Little League World Series, which brings together some of the best 12-and-under youth baseball teams from across the globe to Williamsport, Pa. This year’s tournament includes a squad from Salisbury, the Little League Mid-Atlantic Region champion.

Hester, in fact, would leave the sand, shore and sun during his vacations to the beach for quick snippets of the six-inning games during late-summer vacations, feigning hunger and the need for lunch.

‘‘I love the community spirit behind the league,” said Hester, 46, the president of StarCatch Sports Marketing Services and a longtime youth baseball, basketball and football coach in the area.

After watching others enjoy playing in Williamsport in front of national television audiences on both ESPN and ABC every summer, Hester thought it was time for youth baseball competitors in his neck of the woods to have the same opportunity. Hence, the creation of Bethesda Little League, Inc., which will start play next spring.

‘‘Bethesda is not really a city, but I look at it as a town,” said Hester, a Walter Johnson High and University of Maryland graduate, whose son Brantley plays baseball at Whitman High. ‘‘I see it as a way to unite the community and get some community pride, because when you look at Little League teams across the country, they have that small-town flavor. There’s no reason we can’t have that too.”

This labor of love has been an arduous task, but one that Hester believes will be very rewarding once play begins.

‘‘I had to do it all,” said Hester, who is currently trying to secure fields for play next spring while also organizing the registration. ‘‘I had to file all the paperwork. I had to pay all the money. I had to do all the research. I had to incorporate a nonprofit company, insurance, the bank account. You name it.”

The newly formed league will be for 9-12-year-olds in the Major Division, the same division that sends teams to the Little League World Series. Hester hopes to bring in 100-125 players for in-house competition next spring.

Eligible players reside in the Bethesda-Chevy Chase, Walter Johnson and Whitman high-school areas. Little League rules state that each program operates within specific boundaries, normally not to exceed a total population of 20,000.

Hester will supply eight-to-10 teams with uniforms and host a double-elimination tournament at the end of the season. The league will run April-June and teams will play roughly 14 regular-season games, two per week. Players will be allowed to participate in other leagues.

After that, the top performers will be selected for play on either the 9-10 or 11-12 Bethesda All-Star teams, which will compete for district, state, regional and world championships depending on the age group. The 9-10 age group can reach as high as the state level.

‘‘I think it’s about dreams,” Hester said. ‘‘They’re seeing these guys on TV. There’s no reason they can’t be a part of it.”

Hester believes this is the first time the Bethesda area has been affiliated with Little League Baseball. His is the only Little League franchise in Montgomery County, although there are eight divisions of Little League programs in the state.

Bethesda now resides in Maryland District 4 along with teams in Anne Arundel County, Baltimore, Baltimore County and Laurel.

‘‘It’s an untapped area,” Hester said. ‘‘For whatever reason, Little League doesn’t have a presence in Montgomery County, which is really surprising.”

John Brady, the president of the Montgomery County Baseball Association, said he’s not sure why Little League hasn’t taken hold here in the recent past, but that county teams seem more prone to affiliate with Cal Ripken Baseball — which hosts its World Series in Aberdeen — because of its proximity.

With baseball leagues in nearly every community in the county — including the Gaithersburg Sports Association, the Damascus Sports Association, BCC Baseball, the Olney Boys & Girls Club and the Germantown Athletic Club — Brady believes baseball is one of the county’s most dominant sports. Hester believes BCC Baseball alone houses 4,000 participants.

Note: According to Little League’s official Web site, next spring Bethesda will become the county’s only Little League organization.

To register

Registration for the new league runs through Nov. 1 and can be accomplished online at www.bethesdalittleleague.org. Hester can be contacted at bhester@bethesdalittleleague.org or by phone at 301-655-0075.