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Little League sticks to mission

Little League sticks to mission

Stephen D. Keener finds his days filled.

As president and chief executive officer of Little League Baseball Inc., Keener has been scurrying across the country, flying back and forth to central Pennsylvania trying to keep watch over a youth organization that's about to hold its coming-out party.

That party officially began on Thursday.

Teams of Little Leaguers from around the world were to take the field at Howard J. Lamade Stadium in Williamsport, Pa., the Mecca of youth sports, and begin the annual event that puts the spotlight on youth baseball.

To say Keener's life is "hectic" these days does an injustice to the word.

Keener might be able to squeeze everything he needs to do into his day if his day lasted 36 hours. But with just 24 hours to work with each day (and the need to get some sleep), well, he has to use what time he has judiciously.

For Keener wants everything under his control to run seamlessly for the Little League World Series. To ensure it does, he's just working, working, working.

But someday soon, he'll be able to relax; he'll be able to sit down and exhale. His work will be done, because the boys and girls who play youth baseball and the volunteers who coach them will take over from there.

That thought brings Keener pride, although not as much pride as he feels about what he's been able to maintain. "I think the thing I'm most proud of is Little League hasn't strayed from its mission," he said.

That mission has long been ingrained into what Little League is. Just as the Boy Scouts or the Girl Scouts or Pop Warner Football has their purposes, so does Little League Baseball.

It was founded in 1939 to provide wholesome, healthy summertime activity for boys and girls, Keener said. From the outset, the organization used the baseball field as its classroom, instilling discipline, teamwork, sportsmanship and a sense of fair play into youngsters.

Those core values have served to create two or three generations of Little League alums.

Little League World Series

From Major Leaguers like Tom Seaver, Carl Yastrzemski, George Brett, Nolan Ryan and Cal Ripken Jr., to politicians like former President George H. Bush, former U.S. Sen. Bill Bradley and former New York mayor Rudy Giuliani, to big names like Kevin Costner, Bruce Springsteen and George Will, those alums have learned lessons about how to become responsible, civic-minded adults -- not just in America, but in countries as far flung as Taiwan, Argentina, Poland and places elsewhere in the world.

"Little League has maintained its purpose in being a program for any child in the community who wants to play," Keener said. "Little League provides a place for them to play."

As it has grown from three teams to more than 177,000 teams, the program has benefited millions of boys and girls each year, and Keener sees nothing on the horizon that should slow its growth.

Little League Baseball, just like its big brother Major League Baseball, is very healthy, he said. It's as healthy as it's ever been.

"There's a lot more youth baseball in addition to Little League Baseball than ever before," he said. "But Little League has maintained its leadership position in terms of participation and commitment to the mission of our program."

The competition from other youth sports has forced Keener and his staff to spend long hours on keeping Little League Baseball relevant, he said.

So much of youth baseball today is for the "elite players" on travel squads, and he doesn't discount the importance of those travel teams.

Yet Keener doesn't want Little League, despite the pomp that surrounds its World Series, to evolve into an elite program that limits participation to the best players. The doors to playing baseball should remain open to any boy or girl who wants to spend the summer playing baseball.

No better program exists for youth baseball than Little League, Keener said.

"But it's like cable TV to some extent," he said. "One time there were only the three major networks; today, there are a hundred channels. So there's a lot more competition."

Justice B. Hill is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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