Mt. Airy Baseball: Preserving a Neighborhood Gem

By Ben Silver

The Mt. Airy baseball team, which is preparing to celebrate its 40th anniversary next year, is an example of what can be accomplished when neighbors stubbornly refuse to give up what they believe makes their community special. While other Little League baseball clubs in the city are shrinking as for-profit exhibition teams take over, Mt. Airy’s program is huge and growing.

Around 1,400 players sign up for year-round programs, with about 850 of them signing up to play in the spring. There are currently 60 teams, with more planned.

“There’s nothing like it and it doesn’t get a lot of publicity, so people who aren’t a part of it won’t realize how valuable and wonderful the program is,” said Josephine Winter, executive director of West Mt. Airy Neighbors, whose children have been playing there for three years. “There’s a great sense of community there. First of all, everyone is included, from the 5-year-olds who don’t know which way to run when they hit the ball to the older kids who could be drafted into the big leagues.”

Plus, he said, the league has managed to maintain the diversity that Mt. Airy has long cherished and nurtured. A racially and socioeconomically mixed group of players hails from 27 different ZIP codes (half of whom live in Mt. Airy), and about 20 percent pay the $100 fee on an installment plan.

“That’s why you get everything: pants, a shirt, all the games have referees and there are trophies too,” Winter said.

So they’re celebrating, starting with the installation of an 80-foot-long fence at the Mt. Airy Playground on Germantown Avenue between Sedgwick Street and Mt. Pleasant Avenue. This was done in collaboration with Tiny WPA, a local nonprofit, and the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District.

“You can see the energy center every time you pass by, especially on weekends,” he said. Janis Risch, executive director of the Mt. Airy Business Improvement District. “From a business district standpoint, we love having all those families come to Germantown Avenue and we hope that visiting our other stores and businesses as part of their trip to Germantown Avenue will be a way to support the playground and those families by contributing this fence art.”

Next, a short film currently in production will feature boys and girls who grew up to be the men and women who now serve as members of the community, as well as a selection of former professional baseball players who played in the league at one time or another.

“Former players and their coaches, current players and their parents, people who have been in relationships with each other for 20 years … And they talk like that,” Mt. Airy baseball commissioner Dan Winterstein said.

Meanwhile, the league is saddled with the usual headaches and problems that come with running a program like this. Field maintenance, hiring referees, reserving fields, bringing in more volunteers, putting together schedules and much more are all aspects of ensuring the league doesn’t collapse.

“Everyone, from the commissioner to the people working in the bar, and also the trainers, are volunteers. They don’t have paid staff. My husband was trained to work the lawnmower,” Winter explained.

So once again, volunteers are stepping up to help write grants that can provide financial support. Dozens of local businesses sponsor teams, which helps keep league fees low. The price of playing hasn’t increased in nearly a decade, and Winterstein intends to keep it that way.

When other leagues raised costs, they failed, Winterstein said, and eliminated the economic diversity that makes Little League special. Parents who send their kids to for-profit exhibition leagues, which don’t share the same goals as community leagues like Mt. Airy’s, can easily end up spending $5,000 or $10,000.

“One of the things we are absolutely committed to is keeping fees low. That’s why the league is diverse in terms of race and gender, but also in terms of economics,” Winterstein said. “There are parts of our area that are very wealthy and there are parts of that area that are not at all.”

West Mt Airy Neighbors is currently working with local grant writers to seek financial support for the program. For more information, please contact: [email protected].