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Future of Calistoga Little League in jeopardy

For the first time in Calistoga Little League’s 62-year history, opening day did not take place in town. Instead of being held at Tedeschi Field, as is tradition, the season kicked off...

Calistoga’s softball team, Las Diablitas (the Little Devils), joins St. Helena’s Little League for opening day on Saturday, March 16 at St. Helena’s Crane Park. | Photo by Clark James Mishler

CALISTOGA – For the first time in Calistoga Little League’s 62-year history, opening day did not take place in town.

Instead of being held at Tedeschi Field, as is tradition, the season kicked off at St. Helena’s Crane Park. The relocation came after the youth baseball league only amassed enough interest to fill four team rosters – three t-ball and one minor-level softball.

All other players who registered in age groups that didn’t have enough players to support teams either integrated into St. Helena’s Little League or had to opt out of the season entirely.

Now, Calistoga Little League board members are sounding an alarm that the decline in participation from both parents and kids could be a sign of the end of America’s favorite pastime in Calistoga.

“If interest continues to decline in Calistoga Little League, there won’t be a league in Calistoga going forward,” said Aime Dunstan, president of the local chapter. “Without players and volunteers, there is no league. It’s that simple.”

Calistoga’s Little League was officially founded in 1962. And apart from the 2020 season, which was canceled as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the league has operated continuously. In recent years, a drop in interest from youth and trouble filling seats on the nonprofit board – now at less than 50 percent capacity – has left the organization barely sustainable.

Board member Joan Johnson grew up playing softball at Tedeschi Field in the ’80s. In recent years, she has coached teams her two kids have played on.

In the last decade, Johnson said the local chapter has attracted between 90 and 120 players each year. This season, only 17 t-ball players and 15 minor-level softball players will sport Calistoga jerseys.

The St. Helena league, once Calistoga’s friendly rival, agreed to take in some of the 40 Calistoga kids who found themselves in divisions with not enough players and coaches to form teams. Twenty of them ended up signing with the St. Helena League.

The remaining 20 players decided to forgo baseball this season.

“St. Helena was very nice, and they offered to let kids come over if Calistoga was unable to field a team,” Johnson said. “My daughter is 12 years old and would have played on a major softball team here in Calistoga, but we didn’t have enough people to field a team. She ended up playing for St. Helena’s team, and we have six other girls that did that as well. It’s great because they still have the opportunity to play.”

Of the 20 players who decided not to play in St. Helena, Johnson said multiple factors likely led to their families’ decisions, including the commute out of town for practice and games, and the higher cost of the St. Helena League. Calistoga’s season fee is $50 while St. Helena’s ranges from $175 to $275 depending on the age division. Calistoga board members did offer to subsidize fees for families that met a financial threshold, Johnson said.

She said that for the Calistoga league to function correctly, they need a critical mass of players and volunteers.

One person who she said has done a great job moving the program in a positive direction is Luis Vargas, who is currently coaching the league’s single softball team.

When this year’s registration opened and Vargas heard there wouldn’t be enough players to fill a team, he reached out to parents of kids on his daughter’s soccer team, which he also coaches, to enlist new players. Now, his team, named Las Diablitas or ‘the Little Devils,’ is 15 players strong.

“Most of the girls on my team this year have never played softball,” he said. “But when we’re out there as a team, they have fun and they’re motivated to come back the next day. If more kids are motivated and tell their friends to join, the following year, hopefully, more kids will want to join, and parents will want to coach. That’s my goal.”

Still, Vargas said the challenges recruiting volunteer coaches extend to all of Calistoga’s youth sports.

“A lot of parents work out of town, it’s hard for them to commit to that, but if two or three parents got together to coach a team, they could split the time,” he said. “The driving, timewise, getting out of work, picking up your child, and taking them to where they need to go, making sure they’re prepared, it’s difficult.”

Vargas, whose daughter aspires to become a professional athlete, said he’s worried about the lack of softball opportunities as his daughter and her teammates move up the Little League ranks.

It’s a concern for the high school athletic coaches too.

Earl Dunckel, head coach of the Calistoga High School baseball team said if Little League ends, high school athletics could be the next to falter.

“I don’t know how long we can go without being fed by Little League,” he said. “It definitely signals the end of baseball in Calistoga for sure.”

In the last few years, Dunckel said, participation on the high school team has been strong, but the level of experience is down.

“At least they have the interest, they’re coming out, we’re competing,” Dunckel said. “I don’t know how much longer it’ll last, but we’ll ride it as long as we can.”

For now, as the fate of the 2025 Little League season hangs in the balance, Dunstan, Johnson, and their fellow Calistoga Little League board members are hoping to build on the excitement of this spring’s baseball and softball season to appeal to fresh faces who are up for the challenge of reviving the league.

“Now that baseball might be top of mind for some folks, there is just no time like the present to lay the groundwork,” said Dunstan. “We don’t want people just talking to their neighbors about how baseball ended without stepping up and trying to do something about it.”

Calistoga and St. Helena Little Leaguers united for opening day at Crane Park in St. Helena. | Photo by Clark James Mishler
Calistoga and St. Helena Little Leaguers united for opening day at Crane Park in St. Helena. | Photo by Clark James Mishler
Calistoga and St. Helena Little Leaguers united for opening day at Crane Park in St. Helena. | Photo by Clark James Mishler

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