Among many signs of Lower Manhattan’s triumphant emergence as a thriving residential community, one is perhaps more compelling than any other: the Downtown Little League (DLL), which will celebrate its 25th Opening Day tomorrow (Saturday, April 22), is now the nation’s largest.
With more than 1,000 kids organized into 80 teams, led by 250 coaches and another 150 volunteers, the program, “is at its core a youth-sports organization,” says DLL president Andrew Zelter. “But its impact to the community is much broader than the practices and games that take place on the fields. It teaches — or reminds — all of us what it means to be a member of a community, a teammate, a competitor, a volunteer, and all of the life lessons associated with these various roles.”
In 1992, a coalition of parents and local leaders came together to provide children in what was then a fledgling community with an organized sports option. Paul Goldstein, then the district manager for Community Board 1 (CB1), recalls, “back in the early 1990s our residential community was just beginning its rapid growth spurt and that population was fighting for the services and facilities that more established residential communities took for granted, like schools, ball fields, parks and community centers.”
After the community fought for (and won) the creation of the Battery Park City ball fields, establishing a Little League seemed like an natural next step. Initially, Tribeca parent Lewis Gross, with help from Mr. Goldstein, Manhattan Youth founder Bob Townley, and Judy Duffy, CB1’s assistant district manager, considered forming a new branch of the already-extant Greenwich Village Little League. “But we decided to make this its own organization, and that helped make Lower Manhattan the community that it has become,” Mr. Goldstein reflects. “Both sides had good arguments, but we clearly made the right move when we decided to start our own Downtown Little League.”
“We are extremely appreciative to the group of visionaries who banded together 25 years ago to advocate for a league and space for fields,” Mr Zelter notes. “The evolution of the program over the past two and a half decades has been truly remarkable, including growing to become one of the largest programs in the United States and withstanding several unimaginable life-altering events without missing a season. DLL is representative of the spirit, determination and passion of our Lower Manhattan community.”
He is additionally grateful to the now-grown-up players who took to the fields in 1990s and early 2000s, “who are reaching out as adult alums to give back to a program that they describe as playing an important role in their childhood.”
Also reaching out to support DLL this year is the Howard Hughes Corporation, which has donated $15,000 to fund the purchase of new equipment, announced CB1’s vice chairman, Paul Hovitz, at the April meeting of the board’s Youth and Education Committee.
Mr. Zelter is especially proud of two aspects of DLL’s renaissance. “We offer scholarships to families in need,” he says, “and DLL also runs one of the few Challengers Program in the tri-state area, offering a dedicated program for children with special needs.” Every weekend, he notes, “one of our baseball or softball teams takes the field with our Challengers for an hour of what is unquestionably some of the most uplifting and heart-warming interactions that can take place on a ball field. It is simply the best of DLL.”
On Saturday morning, Mr. Zelter will lead a parade from City Hall to the Battery Park City ball fields, unveil DLL’s commemorative 25th anniversary logo, and welcome parents, kids, and guests to a children’s carnival on Warren Street, between West Street and North End Avenue. Also on hand will be Lower Manhattan’s all-volunteer citizen’s band, the Tri-Battery Pops, led by conductor Tom Goodkind, whose rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballpark” is a hometown favorite. (The Pops will perform again on Sunday, at the Taste of Battery Park City event, on the Esplanade Plaza, alongside North Cove Marina.) But while start-of-season hoopla has its place, Mr. Zelter relishes more the quiet moments that DLL makes happen. “One of my favorite times of the week is being out on the fields in the morning before our first games and literally watching a community come to life,” he reflects.
Recalling the genesis of the organization, Mr. Goldstein (who also coached DLL’s Angels team in 1997) notes that, “it is difficult to overstate the importance of the Downtown Little League in helping to transform Lower Manhattan from a strictly commercial hub to a vibrant mixed-use community.” As someone who was present at DLL’s creation, he says, “Andrew Zelter, the Downtown Little League, and all the parents and others who have sustained this great Downtown institution, which really brings our community together, deserve to be congratulated.”