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Related story: Little League 11/12’s All-Star schedule

It’s that time of year again. With their three-month-long regular seasons drawn to a close, Little League sluggers all over the area are gearing up for their much-anticipated return to the diamond during this week’s All-Star games.

For some, it’s the beginning of a long road toward the coveted land of Williamsport, Pa., where regional champions at the 11/12-year-old Majors level will convene in August to duke it out in front of a national audience. For others, it’s an opportunity to go after more local championships at the district and state level.

For everyone involved, it’s a time to reflect on how Little League continues to exert the same profound influence on people’s lives as it does every summer, even as the leagues change slightly with each passing year. Fairfax ballparks fill up every Saturday with parents, volunteers and children who view it all as more than just a game.

Ellen Witherow is one such person. Witherow, a volunteer for Little League since 1988, has stuck around long after her kids outgrew their playing days. She now serves as the administrator of District 4, one of Northern Virginia’s three Little League regions that are made up of eight different leagues.

“I would rather sit and watch a Little League game - and don’t get me wrong, because I love baseball - any day than any MLB game,” Witherow said. “Those kids are out there, and their hearts are on their sleeves. They’re giving 100 percent. When you see that kid who’s never gotten a hit, and all of a sudden, they get this hit. To see the smile on their face and their teammates’ faces, you remember those.”

Little League veterans like Bob Woodruff remember how different things used to be when they were young enough to play. Woodruff, the Southwestern Youth Association Little League president, remembers when only kids aged 9-12 could take part in the action. Growing up in New Jersey in the 1970’s, athletes played Little League in the spring, football in the fall and basketball in the winter.

Nowadays kids as young as 5 and as old as 18 are getting into the swing of Little League. And it’s not just a sport offered when school lets out anymore — many practices get underway in February, and Little League action can be found through the summer and into the fall. Even with numerous other sports available to them these days, kids can choose to pursue baseball through Little League for much of the year.

The expansion of Little League into more months out of the year reflects its rapid growth and the improved organizational practices that have come with it. More games has translated to more bodies needed to keep the system humming, which has generated the need for more resources and more money.

“It’s much more organized today,” said Bob Sottile, the administrator of District 10, which consists mainly of leagues in the eastern part of the county. “It takes a lot more dedicated volunteers to bring the program on. We need more umpires, there are fundraisers that have to be done. The cost for the child to play now is just astronomical. When I was president of a league back in the late 80’s, we had a $20 registration fee. Now a lot of the leagues are charging upwards of $200 per season.”

Sottile and Woodruff admire the energy and passion that parents and kids invest in their annual quests for summer glory, but they also see detriments to the increased competitiveness that has engulfed Little League. The drive for postseason trophies at the All-Star level tends to put everyone on edge, sometimes to the point where those in the dugout and in the stands lose sight of their purpose for being there in the first place.

“We try to get the parents involved and have them understand that Little League is really here for the kids to have fun,” Woodruff said. “We spend time with coaches and train them about what they should be teaching the kids, not just what they should be doing on the field but how they should be acting. Talking back to umpires won’t show the kind of sportsmanship that we want to instill in kids.”

Still, the positives of these summer gatherings typically outweigh the negatives, particularly when it comes to bringing communities together.

“We live in a transient area,” Witherow said. “The beauty of the Little League program is that every single one of them fosters its community and gives a sense of family. We personally over the years have met people through Little League who have become very close family friends. They’re like our chosen family. That’s what the league fosters.”

For the baseball and softball players laying it all on the line every summer, playing Little League ends up being more about fostering long-lasting friendships than about making game-winning plays. Nick McIntyre, a senior pitcher on Lake Braddock’s state semifinalist baseball team this spring, still attends Little League games every Saturday to watch his 12-year-old brother, Gregory, play for West Springfield American, the team he once played for. McIntyre said he recognizes that his brother’s team has the talent to potentially make a run at Williamsport this summer, but he now knows that Gregory will walk away from the experience with something more meaningful than any kind of trophy could provide.

“All my best friendships that I have now were basically made through Little League,” McIntyre said. “We were just 11 and 12-year-olds hanging out playing baseball every Saturday. It was great.”

If you’re looking for the real beauty of what transpires on the baseball fields this summer, you won’t find it on any scoreboards.

“Just to see the kids’ pure enjoyment and the team sitting there afterwards, even if they just got their butts handed to them, but five minutes later they’re eating their hot dog, eating their ice cream and running around together just having a blast,” Witherow said. “That’s worth every bit of time that I give to it.”

neilerson@fairfaxtimes.com