As Osbourn Park baseball coach Rod Hodgson ran his potential players through tryouts in the school parking lot a few weeks ago, he may have caught a glimpse of the future of his program -- not only by assessing the talent directly in front of him, but by gauging the bodies in the distance.
"I looked across our [driver's ed] range, which is where we were practicing, and I see 70 lacrosse kids," said Hodgson, who counted 12 freshmen, the lowest of his 11-year tenure, among the 40 or so boys vying for spots on the junior varsity and varsity baseball teams at his school.
"They had a lot more people," Yellow Jackets junior center fielder Jason Myers said. "It was definitely noticeable the difference in people trying out for lacrosse and baseball."
Turnout for high school baseball is down almost across the board in Prince William County, with the emerging popularity of boys' lacrosse, a sport that was not established as an official varsity activity in this area until 1999, cited as one of the major drains on baseball participation, a numbers crunch that might only grow worse when two new high schools open in 2004.
"I'm sure there are some areas, maybe more rural areas in different parts of the country, where baseball is still king," Woodbridge baseball coach Frank Chimento said. "But in Prince William County, you can't really say it's at the top of the popularity for kids to come out and play baseball."
Forest Park had a robust turnout of 70, but that is close to double the turnout at most area AAA schools. At Hylton, where the baseball team has gone 35-14 the past two seasons, the participation numbers were "awful," Coach John Colantuoni said. Even though the team graduated 12 seniors, just 38 potential players reported to tryouts.
The Bulldogs used to hold JV tryouts and varsity tryouts. Now the two are combined because the talent pool has shrunk.
Osbourn, coming off a 24-1 season keyed by departed seniors, had only 30 players in grades nine through 12 try out. Coach Keith Howell said the Eagles kept four eighth-graders on the JV team.
With the lure of lacrosse and the firm entrenchment of soccer, there are fewer and fewer willing players to go around for high school baseball teams. Meanwhile, presidents of three county Little League organizations say interest at the younger levels has stayed fairly consistent, which might indicate that as players grow older, many lose interest in baseball.
"Lacrosse seems to be the hot up-and-coming sport," said Gar-Field baseball coach Jay Burkhart, a Kansas native who had not seen lacrosse played until he moved to the Washington area in 1994. "Everybody wants to play lacrosse. It seems like kids in class -- everybody -- is talking about lacrosse. Kids come up and ask if so and so is trying out, and I say no, and they say, 'Oh, he must have tried out for lacrosse instead of baseball.' "
It's not a knock on lacrosse. Even some baseball enthusiasts can understand the appeal of a sport that combines elements of soccer and football while having a personality all its own.
"I have a friend who goes to Stonewall, and he's always trying to get me to go out for lacrosse," Myers said. "He said it's an awesome sport. It looks fun because it combines a lot of different sports into one. I guess it's a more physically involved game."
If lacrosse is the hot sport, soccer is the taught sport. Its simplicity at the younger age levels make it an easier sport in which to participate, and, perhaps, grow into.
"You can take a child and put him on a soccer field, and he doesn't even have to kick the soccer ball, and he can participate in something, which is great," Colantuoni said. "But when it comes to more of a skill sport and having little balls thrown at you and trying to hit it with a little barrel, I'm sure some kids have a fear with that."
And fear, of a different sort, might scare off players as they get older.
"Baseball is a sport where the focus is directly on you," said Chimento, who had about 40 players at tryouts this season, down slightly from last year and about half the size of what he would expect from one of the largest schools in the state. "So if you're at the plate, if you succeed or fail -- especially fail, which you do a lot -- everyone knows it. If you let a ball go between your legs, everybody sees it. You drop a ball, everyone sees it. If you give up a home run as a pitcher, everyone sees it. There are some other sports where sometimes you disappear, and people in the stands don't realize you made a mistake because you're in the crowd.
"Baseball's not like that. You're exposed. Maybe some people shy away from that. They don't want to have that chance of failure, and baseball is a game based on failure."
"Failure is definitely a big part of baseball," Gar-Field senior center fielder/pitcher John Malene said. "The best players have to be able to handle that consistently. If they want to play as sport like lacrosse, I think it's a little easier to pick up. Baseball is really a skill sport, and you really have to put so much time into it. Baseball is not really a sport you can pick up [in] high school. It's something you have to develop over time and start when you're really young."
Fielding, throwing and hitting skills indeed can be difficult to acquire, even for the most accomplished athlete. Potomac baseball coach Mike Covington, whose program had just 27 players turn out for varsity and JV this season, remembers a day a few years back when a standout football player wandered over from track practice and asked whether he could take some cuts. He knocked a few balls over the fence -- swinging from the backstop.
"I see things like that quite often," Covington said. "I'll see a kid in a PE softball game or see a kid playing basketball in gym class throw a baseball pass the length of the court, and I'll talk to the kid, and he's never played [baseball] before. The sad part about it with those kids is that they have the raw ability, but baseball is unlike other sports in that it's such a skill game, and they don't realize you have to work on little drills and stuff to get the overall picture. Take a great athlete who's a star in football or a star in basketball. He doesn't want to start from ground zero because it's boring to him."
If nothing else, Colantuoni said, the lower baseball turnouts have given a lot of players the chance to compete in a sport they love, and those might have been players who would not have even made the team if the sport were more popular.
"You have to be a certain type of person to like playing baseball," Myers said. "It's not a fast sport. You just have to be a baseball person, I guess."