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Put me in, Coach: Riverhead Little League president on resuscitating classic program

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Years ago, little league was all the rage: kids filled the ball fields, parents filled the stands, it was all part of the community experience. But today, little leagues all across the east end are struggling with registration numbers.

Riverhead Little League is among the more successful programs and if you were to thank one person it would most certainly be current president Tony Sammartano.

Fifteen years ago, while his son Anthony was playing little league, Sammartano was appointed President to a three-year term. After the term came to an end, Sammartano was not reelected.

“Anthony got into the whole travel ball thing, we were traveling all over the country with those guys,” said Sammartano. “I couldn’t do two things at once.”

Patty White held presidency for two years and then quit, according to longtime little league coach Tony Napoli.

“She wasn’t able to serve out her office,” said Napoli.

Janet O’Neal, the secretary for the little league at the time, organized a meeting pleading to the coaches for help.

“It was me, the Dilworths, John Wendt … We met at the library,” said Napoli. “We decided to make ourselves the board because there was no more board, they all left.”

“After the season, I decided to give Tony Sammartano a call,” said Napoli. “I mean he’d done it all before. He had all the contacts.”

“I got a phone call from Tony Napoli saying that the league was kind of in trouble,” Sammartano said. “He said that they were in dire straits and asked me if I would come back to try to get the league back on the right track. He pretty much talked me into it.”

Only three years removed from his departure, Sammartano was puzzled as to what exactly went wrong.

“I think the people who were in charge at that time had their own personal interests at hand rather than the big picture,” he said. “After your kid ages out, all your plans, all your ideas, they’re gone. If someone else wants to take charge you can be out-voted.”

To be a president for the Little League, Sammartano explains, is a 11-month, 40 hour-a-week volunteer job. But he admits, he could never do it alone.

“Nobody could do this job alone,” he said. “You have to surround yourself with good people and when you have good people, it makes it go so much smoother. I’m working a thankless job and people really don’t know what goes into it but I go all day just with Little League.”

His phone was constantly vibrating throughout the interview.

“There is sponsors to deal with, teams, uniforms, parents,” he said. “When a parent has a complaint, ‘My kid ain’t playing’ or ‘My kid is playing the wrong position’, I always make a point to listen. But I always have the same answer for them: it may not be the way you want it to be now and I understand that, but there will come a day when you are going to wish you were at the park watching little Johnny or little Sue play. So, live for the moment and enjoy it because that will not always be there.”

“You need to keep the best interest of all the kids instead of just one particular group,” Sammartano said. “Little league is about baseball and softball.

“My goals have always been to keep the kids always playing,” said Sammartano. “The more kids that play outdoor activities like baseball, lacrosse, and football means less kids are sitting at home playing video games and getting into trouble out of school.”

One of the most recent changes made was the re-implementation of the AAA league that disappeared after Sammartano left.

“It was something that they weaved out,” he said. “They thought that all kids should be able to play in the majors no matter what their ability. But instead of helping the kids, we were actually hurting them because at that age not everyone has the same capabilities. There were kids that couldn’t compete and would strike out every at-bat. So, rather than continuing to play, they quit and that is not what we wanted. Now, everyone can be age and ability oriented.”

All players that were formerly on a Majors Division team and all players that just completed the AA Division attended a tryout to determine ability. Now, the Majors Division only has four teams while the remaining players were placed in AAA.

The rules are no different in AAA besides the pitching distance and base-length. AAA will play on 60 ft bases with a 46 ft pitching distance while the Majors will play on 70 ft bases with a 51 ft pitching distance.

Even with all the new adjustments, registration numbers are just not where they used to be. The emergence of a lacrosse program in Riverhead has something to do with it.

“Lacrosse plays a part in it,” said Sammartano. “Not so much on the baseball side but more on the softball side. More girls are playing lacrosse than ever before.”

Even though Sammartano says that the softball program in Riverhead is “one of the best around.”

Both of Riverhead’s softball teams won the district championship last year for the Little League World Series.

“We are finding that other leagues have to play with us because they don’t have enough girls,” he said. “We have Mattituck, Longwood, Eastport and Westhampton playing on our fields this year.”

Mattituck will also play in Riverhead’s baseball division because of their low registration numbers.

“Early on in their lives, kids don’t really know what they want to play so parents are trying to do both sports,” said Sammartano. “But the parents know they will eventually have to make a decision, you won’t be able to play both sports beyond little league.”

But Sammartano believes that the real reason is the lack of interest.

“We keep the cost down, we don’t raise prices and it’s cheaper than most leagues,” he said. “It has to be the lack of interest. Let’s face it baseball is boring; say what you want, it’s a boring sport. It’s not a sport where you can hide either. Every second inning, you’re in the spotlight, you’re getting up to the plate. It’s not a sport like soccer where you can just blend in.”

Recently, Riverhead accepted a bid to host the 2013 NYS Little League World Series Softball Championship Tournament that will be played during the week of July 8-14.

“Of course I jumped at the opportunity,” said Sammartano. “It’s a chance to get exposure.”

“Riverhead is a good destination to do something like that,” said Sammartano. “I just hope the community gets behind it. I don’t know if they really understand what it entails but to have six teams from all over the state come here is remarkable. Granted, they are only going to play softball for two to four hours a day, but they’ll be here all week. They will have the ability to go to wineries, Splish Splash, and all sorts of other things so it will really be a big boost for the community.”

Sammartano, now in his fifth term as president, hopes to continue building the program at Riverhead for years to come.

“I have a four year old and a ten-month old so I’m vested here for awhile,” Sammartano said, laughing. “As long as they’ll have me.”

But there is just one thing Sammartano would like after he’s done with his time as president.

“I always wanted at one point to get a field named after me,” he said. “Whether it be for an in honor of or for all the time spent, you know, like blood sweat and tears type of thing. And hopefully, it’s not after I’m dead.”