Y not take the next step for youth baseball?

By JOHN JAMES MARSHALL, Journal Sports

Here’s your challenge for the day: Talk to the YMCA’s CEO Gary Lash about his latest project – the expansion of the organization’s footprint with the Little League Baseball fields – and see if you can get him not to use the word “opportunity.”

Spoiler alert – you can’t.

“That Little League property (on Knight Street) hasn’t changed a whole lot in the 30 years since it’s been built,” Lash said. “We just need a nice place to play that will bring kids in, build that sport up and give them opportunity.”

(Well, that didn’t take long.)

Lash isn’t afraid to hide from his feeling that what is about to take place over the next few months is indeed an opportunity that can’t be passed up. The YMCA now owns the land on which Shreveport Little League was built in the early 1990s. Once the upcoming Little League season is over (early summer), that property will be completely re-done.

To say that you won’t recognize it in a little more than a year from now is an understatement.

The 11 fields that are currently there will be gone, replaced by 8 or 9 new ones of varying sizes. All will have turf infields; some may be completely turfed. New parking lots, shaded spectator areas, player development areas will all be created. Beyond that, who knows?

An anonymous gift of $300,000, plus a corporate donation for scoreboards, has brought the project to reality and the major fundraising has begun.

“Opportunity” may be the key word, but batting second in the lineup is “impact.”

“The hope is that we can bring big tournaments into Shreveport along with building up Little League,” Lash said. “Getting kids out to play and off their phones is one thing, but it’s also a big economic benefit for the community. It seems like everybody but Shreveport is building these sports complexes. Youth sports is big, big business.”

It’s another ambitious project for Lash and the Y – a new fitness complex is also underway on its Forbing property – but he says simply “it’s the right thing to do.”

It didn’t just happen overnight. More than a decade ago, petroleum and mining giant BHP set up an office at the corner of Knight and East Preston and began to take on community projects such as the construction of the Y across the street. Other projects such the Little League renovation and an Outdoor Education Center (located on the other side of the original BHP building) were also planned.

“BHP was going to be doing all this, but they discovered that oil and gas has little bit of peaks and valleys,” Lash said. “When it valleyed, they were out. They gave dollars for the Y and gave us the property for land behind the building. So we continued in the plans for what we wanted to do.”

“This (partnership) has been talked about for about 10 years,” said Lawrence Calhoun, who served four terms as Little League president and was involved in the organization for 23 years. “To be honest, we kind of thought they just wanted to get our mailing list.”

But Calhoun knows the numbers don’t lie. Where once Little League had 1,200 sign-ups, now there are less than 500.

“Quite frankly, because of the travel baseball, that has taken away from Little League,” Calhoun said. “Joining with the Y is going to be a great opportunity. It will keep the property to a higher standard and give it good curb appeal. New projects will attract more people to be involved in Little League.”

Lash believes the combination of building up Little League and the added ability to host travel league tournaments – as well as enhancing local travel teams – is a win for everybody.

“It’s also a quality-of-life issue,” he says. “Our kids are going somewhere else (for tournaments) every weekend and their families are spending between $700 and $1,000. We want to give them that same opportunity here. We want to build community and a place where families can spend time together and give kids opportunity to play past Little League and into high school and maybe college.”

Construction is expected to be done in seven or eight months. The Outdoor Education Facility is further down the road, but once it’s all said and done, the various complexes run by the Y will be about 130 acres.

“A lot of times people in Shreveport people think you can’t do something because it’s never been done here,” Lash said. “People thought we were nuts for building the (BHP) Y facility and it’s packed all the time. There’s a lot of baseball in Shreveport and Bossier. We just need a place to give them that opportunity.”

Photo: YMCA