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Hey Batter, Batter!

DAILY LEADER / KATIE WILLIAMSON / Aiden Humphrey practices hitting the ball during the Annie Sanders coach pitch practice Tuesday, May 19, at Dr. A.L. Lott field.

DAILY LEADER / KATIE WILLIAMSON / Aiden Humphrey practices hitting the ball during the Annie Sanders coach pitch practice Tuesday, May 19, at Dr. A.L. Lott field.

Gloves are up and bats are swinging, and the Dr. A.L. Lott community youth baseball and softball leagues are gearing up for opening day May 31. This year is the largest group of kids since the local community action group organized the program in 2011.

“This is the first time ever playing for most of these girls,” said Devonda Barlow, head coach of the All Stars softball team. “We’ve been working since March and we’re ready to play. I know they will give it their all, and we are expecting to win.”

There 27 different teams: eight girls’ softball teams and 19 boys’ and girls’ teams. The league offers boys’ tee-ball for 4-to-6 year olds, boys’ buddy ball/coach pitch for 7-to-9 year olds, boys’ little league for 10-to 12-year olds, boys’ pony league for 13-to-16 year olds and girls’ softball for 10-to-16 year olds.

Baseball leagues, such as the Dr. A.L. Lott’s, are not just about athletics. According to studies by the United States Government Accountability Office, early participation in athletics results in higher academic performance. It affects cognitive skills, attitudes and academic and classroom behavior. The GAO report also found that sport participation affects personal development including self-esteem, goal-setting and leadership.

“We are out here trying to teach our kids some good citizenship skills, leadership skills, about sportsmanship and building friendships as well,” said Roy Smith, league director. “We are trying to get kids acclimated to the game. Once they are acclimated, and if they like it, we don’t have to worry about them for the rest of their lives.”

The two lighted 280-foot baseball fields are maintained by the Brookhaven Recreation Department, and the youth baseball program is run through private and public donations. The coaches and staff are volunteers, except for the umpires and score keepers. Last year the organizers collected $13,000, and this year Smith expects about the same.

“It means a lot to the community,” said John Sanders, assistant coach of the Elks Lodge little league team. “Parents, grandparents and great-grand parents can come see their kids play. It also keeps the kids out of trouble.”

Sanders has been playing at the fields since the 1960s when the Brookhaven Recreation Department developed the area. He has seen the league develop from four teams of boys wearing white T-shirts to today’s 27 teams in bright uniforms.

“Sportsmanship; that’s the most important thing,” said Semmie Smith, coach of the Elks Lodge team. “We grew-up playing at this field. It’s not about winning or losing.”

The teams play against each other, as well as community leagues from other counties. Smith expects to have 500 to 600 kids playing on the fields this year. Smith prides himself in directing one of the nicest community fields in the state.

“People from out of town love to play here,” said Smith. “I can’t wait. Once opening day is over, I’ll be OK.”

The Dr. A.L. Lott opening day is set for Saturday, May 31, at 10 a.m. It will consist of local government officials speaking to the players and coaches, and there will be team photos and five-to-six ball games. All events will take place at the Dr. A.L. Lott fields on Dr. Martin L. King Drive.