The facilities at Hamilton Little Lads were one of the draws for the Hamilton PAL in its merger with HLL.

In 1947, a group of parents decided to make a Little League. Seventy years and thousands of happy kids later, a new group is re-making that same league.

Hamilton Township’s oldest recreation baseball league, Hamilton Little Lads is joining forces with the Hamilton PAL Baseball League to slow the regression of rec baseball that has been a constant source of angst in America since travel ball took over.

New Little Lads President Mark Meara got together with PAL Executive Director Steven Gould, Baseball Director Don Bourne and board member Joe Mastropolo to discuss how to aid both leagues, which were struggling participation-wise.

Thus, a merger has taken place. PAL players will sign up and play for the Little Lads, while the PAL moniker will remain intact for the league’s youngest division: the PAL Rookie Division.

“I said from the beginning I wanted to take a fresh look at everything and just see if there were things we could approach differently and kind of re-invigorate the league,” said Meara, who has been involved in Little Lads for eight years. “It was getting to the point where we didn’t have many teams. You end up with two or three teams in a division, and what fun is that? You play the same team 10 times. PAL was also exploring other opportunities. Our league came up in conversation, we had those guys over for a tour, it went really well and things moved really quick.”

The positive results have been immediate. With registration ongoing until the season starts and beyond, Meara reported on Feb. 19 that the Little Lads were just four players shy of equaling last year’s total number of participants. This comes after nearly two decades of decreasing attendance figures.

There will be four divisions that will all field at least four teams. The PAL Rookie Division (T-ball) is for ages 4-6. There is also the Junior Division (7-8), Minor Division (9-10) and Major Division (11-12). There are travel teams and Cal Ripken All Star teams at nearly every level. Little Lads is the lone township program affiliated with Ripken and not Little League Baseball.
Registration is free for the Rookie Division in an effort to introduce more younger players to baseball.

“To me it was almost a no-brainer,” said Gould, who played in Little Lads and whose father, Tony, is a long-time Lads coach. “Any sort of change is always difficult for some people. They tend to get complacent after a while and don’t like change. But overall for the kids, if there’s any chance for them to have a better opportunity to play baseball we had to take it.

“It’s a different time now. You have sports like lacrosse taking away from baseball. When I was younger, you didn’t have any of that. You played Little Lads, Sunnybrae, Nottingham, YMCA, HTRBA or PAL. There are so many more options for kids now, joining up with others in the township is the best way to keep things going.”

As Meara is fond of saying, it’s all about partnerships. And this merger is one partnership after another as the Little Lads are big on utilizing community outreach.

‘…We wanted to give the kids a chance to play at better facilities and have more competition.’

It starts with the leagues themselves. The games will be played at the Little Lads complex off of Clinton Avenue, while the PAL facilities will be used as practice fields. If the league plans to host some major tournaments, efforts will be made to upgrade the PAL complex so it can also host.

“The Little Lads facilities are fantastic,” Gould said. “And it gives our kids a chance to play night games, which is something we didn’t have at our field. And there are better batting cages.”

The batting cages also led to a partnership with Hamilton High School West. The Hornets girls’ lacrosse and baseball teams have been renting the indoor facilities at a nominal cost to run captains’ practices. That brings in a little extra money, and also exposes families with younger siblings to the facilities, planting a seed that maybe Little Lads is worth checking out. Meanwhile, the Hornets prepare for the upcoming season in the midst of bad weather.

Another partnership has been struck with Meara’s brother, former township councilman Kevin Meara and his City of Angels baseball team.

“He’s got a lot of guys who are handymen on that team,” Mark Meara said. “We let them use our facilities, and they’ll fix our lights, fix our electrical issues and a lot of other things we need done. And they’re using our cages from 9 to 10 at night, so are kids aren’t using them at that time. It’s a win-win.”

It doesn’t end there. HLL has also joined with Pandolfini Sports Academy, run by Ryan Pandolfini, and Lights Out Academy, run by Bryan Henry, to provide professional training and development services for players and coaches. Lights Out is expected to run the summer camp, while Pandolfini is providing instruction while running three younger travel teams out of the Little Lads complex.

“We wanted to bring in some high-level baseball instruction,” Meara said. “If you improve your complex, which we are doing, one of our core objectives is to improve the performance of the players.”

One final partnership features the Northern Burlington and Upper Freehold programs. Little Lads teams will play each other in their division four times, and plans are being made for teams to also play two inter-division games apiece against NB and UF.

“This way they’ll play a 16-game season but have some different competition,” Meara said.

Meara said he set 10 goals for improvement. The biggest is to increase enrollment, which has happened. Another is the aforementioned improvement of the facilities, and he is also looking to increase finances through the way major fundraisers are being held.

“We’re putting improvements back into the facilities,” Meara said. “We’ve been doing a lot of maintenance around the complex, like roof repairs. Over the past five years, we already started some major improvements like putting carpet in our big batting cage. We re-did the carpet in the clubhouse. We put a lot of money into our major fields. We re-did the whole infield and put sod on the infield.

“We also want to renovate our bathrooms. That’s on our spring project list and we raised our capital to do that. These are small things but noticeable things.”

Despite their declining enrollment, the Little Lads had three All-Star teams advance from Cal Ripken District 1 play into the Southern NJ State Tournament, and the 12-year-old team reached the Mid-Atlantic Regional. Meara uses a selling point that in 11-12 Cal Ripken play, the pitcher’s mound is 50 feet from home plate and the bases are 70 feet apart, which are closer to the next level than Little League’s 46-60 proportions.

“It’s a big jump going to Babe Ruth playing 46-60 versus coming from 50-70,” Meara said. “We sometimes see kids come over and join us when they get older to get used to those distances.”

Opening Day for Little Lads is April 8. Registration is being held online at hamiltonlittlelads.com, and Meara said parents could even sign up their child after the season starts. In-person registration can still be done each Saturday from 9 to 11 a.m. and 3 to 5 p.m. in the big batting cage, where practices are being held during those times.

“We’ll be practicing, but I’ve got five coaches there with me so we can take the time out to sign somebody up,” Meara said.

So far, both parties seem happy.

“This isn’t something we needed to do,” Gould said. “But we wanted to give the kids a chance to play at better facilities and have more competition. Merging with Little Lads gives them that opportunity.”

And by them getting the opportunity, they are pumping new life into the township’s oldest league.

“For the first time in almost 20 years our enrollment is up,” Meara said. “It’s exciting to see.”