June 8, 2014

Arlington Southwest Little League has become a big hit among member families

ASWLL, which plays at the Martin Luther King Jr. Sports Complex, ranks among the biggest Little Leagues in the world with more than 1,200 players.

Fielder Wells, 9, held a game ball in one hand and an ice cream cupcake in the other. It was hard to tell which was better.

“I like catching pop-ups,” the Wranglers’ T-ball player said when asked his favorite part of Little League. “I like the concession stand, too.”

Arlington Southwest Little League seems to be succeeding at its goal of making its customers happy. The league, which plays its games at Martin Luther King Jr. Sports Complex, has grown from 245 players in 2009 to the 1,200 players it had in the spring, ranking it among the top 10 Little Leagues in the world in overall registration.

The league has players as young as 3 and as old as 18. It also includes some 100 girls.

“For 20 years, we were just like every other league,” league President Brett Smith said. “We’re past the Mom-and-Dad thing. You just can’t run a business that way. Part of what I wanted to impress upon our board was to stop looking at them as baseball players and start looking at them as customers, and don’t think those boys and girls are your only customers. Those parents are your customers, too. If you can’t keep those parents happy, they’re not going to stay here.

“We didn’t have a very good product. We were playing baseball and going through the motions. We’re now run like a business, by businessmen and women, and our customers are happy.”

The league is a 501(c)3 corporation, with $429,000 in revenue generated in 2013. It had $67,000 in revenue in 2009. The extra funds go back into the league.

The league owns five Gator utility carts, including one that serves as a portable concession stand, to get around the 85-acre baseball complex, which opened in 1999. It has tarps for the pitchers’ mounds and recently announced that air conditioning soon will cool the concession stand, where volunteers work two-hour shifts.

Everything in the concession stand sells for $1, with free drink refills. The city gets 18 percent of gross sales, which will top $100,000 this year.

“We don’t run the concession stand to make money,” said board member Ben Clark, a certified public accountant. “But it does.”

Partners have lined up to donate money: The league has agreements with Freedom Chevrolet, New Balance, Ameriprise/Derrick Kinney and Spring Creek Barbeque. The city, The Church on Rush Creek, Alley Cats and Chick-fil-A provide assets, services and goods.

“I just believe in what they’re doing and what they stand for and wanted to support it,” said Ralph Parks, who owns the six New Balance stores in Dallas-Fort Worth and has had grandchildren in the league. “It’s not necessarily that you choose to do it, but I think to some extent you’re called to do it. There’s a need, and if you can help in some small way, it’s wonderful. But what little I do is nothing — absolutely nothing — compared to what all those volunteers do out there. They put in hours upon hours.”

When Smith took over in 2009, the league had 14 board members. It now has 49, with each given “a lane of responsibility.” Some board members, like Al Greenhouse, the vice president of operations and commissioner in charge, don’t have kids or grandkids in the league.

Greenhouse retired to Arlington from Washington, D.C., after 28 years in the military and 15 years running his own business. Four years ago, while out on his daily walk, he saw a sign for umpire training for the league.

“I was looking for something to do,” Greenhouse said. “So I went over there, signed in and gave them my contact information. Soon, I started getting phone calls from Brett. ‘What are you doing?’ ‘Not too much.’ ‘Well, then let’s go call some ball.’ The calls became more frequent. Soon, all the time I was calling baseball.”

The league now has 65 volunteer umpires on its roster, the most of any Little League in the world. Twenty-five have high school umpiring experience, and Smith once served as an umpire consultant for the NCAA.

Mike Conolly has umpired Little League for 33 years, the past seven at the Arlington league. He drives from his home in Springtown to the Arlington fields off U.S. 287, near Tierra Verde Golf Club.

“The atmosphere and the way they stringently follow the rules and don’t let anybody get out of line, that’s what Little League is supposed to be,” Conolly said. “So I’d rather drive all the way there than go to a Little League that’s 10 minutes down the road and doesn’t really do it the way I think it should be done.”

A sign posted on the backstop at each field reads: “These are your children, volunteer coaches and volunteer umpires. Treat them with the respect that they deserve. Nothing less is acceptable. This is about so much more than just baseball.”

“That sign says so much,” said Mike Newton, who was with Amy Holland watching 11-year-old Mathew play for the Grays.

On a recent school night, six games were taking place at the complex. Some moms sat in lawn chairs reading. A group of men stood, discussing the Cowboys and the Rangers. Kids played on playground equipment and enjoyed games of wallball.

“It’s about so much more than baseball,” Smith said.

Every Friday night in the spring and fall is Disney movie night with a free offering from the Arlington Parks and Recreation Department on a big screen on the lawn. Movies at the Park has become a big hit.

“We live out here,” said Fielder’s mother, Rebecca Wells. “They really try to encourage wholesome family fun. It’s incredible. We won’t leave this league.”

The league has grown from the three fields it had in 2009 to the six big fields and two T-ball fields it has now. Two other big fields are scheduled to be constructed for next spring.

The city moved all other youth sports associations out of MLK, making the league the sole tenant.

But the league’s growth won’t continue. The 33-year-old league has found its magic number, declining to add Mondays, Wednesdays and Sundays to its regular-season schedule.

Registration for the fall season opens Tuesday, and Smith expects the 650 roster spots to be filled in less than a week.

“We have been able to handle the growth to date, but we will not sacrifice family time so that we can add additional players,” Smith said. “We need those nights off, if for no other reason so that the volunteers can keep their sanity. That means that there are some who will simply not be able to play for lack of room.”

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