The news that Gulfport Little League could merge with Southwest Little League came as a shock to former Little League team member and current Gulfport city manager Jim O’Reilly Tuesday night.
Earlier in the month, Gulfport parent Jon Kile called the Gabber, upset his son couldn’t play in Gulfport Little League. League volunteers, Kile said, directed him to Southwest Little League, the league for St. Pete Beach, Treasure Island, South Pasadena, and the southwestern edge part of Gulfport.
Gulfport City Manager Jim O’Reilly called the Little League, who assured him they would look into the boundary issues and redraw the boundaries to allow Gulfport children to play in Gulfport Little League.
When the Gabber called Joe Liberatore, the District Administrator responsible for Pinellas Little League south of Ulmerton (nine leagues in total), to discuss the new boundaries, Liberatore told the Gabber something it did not expect to hear: pending approval from Southwest Little League and Gulfport Little League, the two leagues could merge into a new one by next year.
Gulfport Little League, Liberatore said, has less than 50 players registered, and remapping the league to include the rest of Gulfport added between eight and ten players.
“That gives three teams at best,” he said. Southwest has an estimated 120 players registered. “It’s making it very difficult for us to form teams.”
For the current year, Gulfport and Southwest will combine teams. Little Leaguers can play as part of Gulfport Little League this year, as the teams have not yet officially merged. This allows the leagues to have full teams.
“Lots of leagues do that every year,” Gulfport Little League President Jon Harker said. “It happens all the time. For example, if Azalea has two or three senior girls, they need at least 10.”
Next year, Liberatore said, he sees the teams merging, pending votes from both league board of directors to do so.
“Both presidents have expressed to me that they’re extremely interested, they both agree that this is the right thing to do for both communities,” he said.
Gulfport Little League intends, Harker said, with stipulations, to proceed with the merger.
“We voted to move forward,” Harker said, “which means talking to the city manager, Joe Liberatore and talking to Southwest about doing it. It still has to go through the city. I have not really talked to Jim O’Reilly yet. It still has to go through the city.”
Harker said the merger would only happen after discussions with the city and if Southwest Little League voted to merge as well. Gulfport Little League, for its part, voted approval with conditions, including that Little League would stay in Gulfport and that the name – Gulfport Little League – would not change.
Liberatore said the name wouldn’t stay the same and that the teams would play some games in Gulfport and others on St. Pete Beach.
“We’re trying to work it out so there’s an equal number of games,” he said.
The merger is not yet finalized, Harker said.
“There’s a lot of steps that have to happen before it comes to fruition. It can’t just happen. Yes, the board took a preliminary vote and yes, the numbers are down and we want to see what’s best for the kids,” he said. “I am in favor of it if it benefits the league. The numbers are down and it’s dwindling more and more every year. There’s a lot of things for kids to do now. We do not want to do away with Little League at all. The board wants what’s best for the kids and so they get to play ball. You can’t play ball when you’ve only got 40- kids and seven to eight teams. It doesn’t divide.”
Harker said he expects Gulfport Little League enrollment to increase in the coming weeks. Parents often register kids at the last minute, and “we usually end up around 100” kids.
Higher enrollment could stop the merger, Liberatore said, and even if the two leagues do merge, with enough enrollment, Gulfport could one day have its own Little League again.
“Nothing is forever,” Liberatore said, adding that Little League prefers more “hometown” leagues and if enrollment increased to 200, Gulfport could reform.
“There was a day when Gulfport had 200 kids playing ball, and I would love to see that day return,” he said.
The merger, which will need approval from Little League International, wouldn’t happen until next spring.
“Nothing would happen for this year,” Harker said. “It would be for next year.”
Liberatore says he hopes, should the two leagues merge, that the teams can still play some games at Lum Atkinson field.
“We don’t want to relinquish the fields in Gulfport,” he said. “You all have some of the nicest fields.”
Gulfport City Council just voted to offer Little League a one-dollar-a-year lease and to pay the power bill for six months out of the year. Little League has not yet signed the lease.
During the lease discussions, O’Reilly said the subject of the two leagues merging did not arise.
Gulfport Little League received its charter in 1954, making it the second oldest charter in the area. It’s also one of
the select few leagues with a city’s name as part of its name.
Tuesday night, O’Reilly wasn’t ready to surrender Gulfport Little League.
“We have a lot to talk about this before this ever happens,” he said.