With little help, Chuck Stone LL survives; on rebound
ATHOL — With the annual passing out of trophies, kids cheering and pictures being taken on the fields, the Chuck Stone Little League, an organization that has been around since 1952, completed yet another successful season on Thursday, June 8. But a league that has been such a vital component to the community has dwindled in recent years. A league that once had a full community backing it with eight solid teams, has shrunk to a league with four teams and few volunteers.
“We actually had a great season this year,” said league president Gail Allen. “It would have been nice to have a little more help. We’re kind of lacking with our volunteers this year but we make the league run like clock work.”
A league that once had 19 board members now has six.
“We need more, we do not have enough volunteers, I cannot stress any more, we need so much help down here with running the league because it takes a lot to run the league.”
“We stay in it kind of struggling with the lack of volunteers but we keep going because we love seeing the kids play,” said treasurer and parent to a player, Lonnie Bonenfant. “I’ve watched my son come up in the league and my daughter is following along, she is the only girl in the league, I’m pretty proud of that.”
Even with little help, the league manages to put together a quality season year in and year out thanks to the parents and volunteers that stand up and volunteer their services to the league. When consulted, any volunteer is quick to express their love for the league and the kids.
“It’s what I love, it’s my favorite part, the kids,” said Allen. “The kids are the reason why I do it. I love their smiles. They’re all like my own little children.”
“I love it,” said Bonenfant about volunteering. “I really have so many favorite things about our little Chuck Stone League. Kids that have never played baseball before coming in and improving so much over the course of the season, whether it was pitching or catching for the first time to hearing the huge crack of the bat on their first big hit. I think my favorite is always after the championship game is over and the two teams are on the field, after the trophies and medals are handed out, watching those kids from both teams laugh, joke and congratulate each other.”
Tony Vitello was born in Athol, moved away, and recently came back to the town. His two sons, David and Matthew, ages 11 and 9, play for the Lions team while Vitello coaches the Lions. His sons’ as well as his love for the game got him into coaching. Vitello couldn’t be happier about the experience.
“It’s incredible,” said Vitello. “I’m so happy to be able to spend the time coaching the team. All the boys have such a positive experience with the team so for me to be there with my boys and see them progress and all the other boys and see them progress as players and people. I feel a little responsibility to make sure it’s such a positive experience for everybody so on our team this year we were fortunate to have a great group of kids. Everybody was everyone’s best friends. That’s how I wanted it to be, that’s how I think it worked out for us this year.”
Vitello played Little League at the same James H. Salevan Field as his sons. His father played at the same field as well and Vitello couldn’t be happier that his kids have the same experience.
“I grew up playing Little League and I had such a great time and I always remember when I was 12 I could probably still name the roster of my entire team and I wanted my boys to have the same experience that I had,” said Vitello.
Matt Bonenfant has coached for 10 years now and is glad to be part of the experience for as long as he has.
“I basically wanted to get involved with the baseball and I started coaching when my middle son, Jack, played and wanted to be involved in the baseball experience,” said Bonenfant. “To be honest, it’s been a good experience for me and it’s been great for the kids because I know they seem to like me coaching and being involved. I’m not sure if it’s due to what I’m doing but it’s great to get them involved in the regular season and also the summer baseball and I’m glad to be part of it.”
In the last five years, the league has made some strides in improving the league and the way it is run. Since Allen has come on as president, she has updated the league to digital.
“When I first started, everything was very old-school,” said Allen. “Everything was paper. I kind of came along and brought technology into it so we are doing everything online. Our registrations are done online now and we have Facebook and our website and it seems the communication is a lot better now, now that we have the technology.”
“The numbers have been going down a bit but we are holding down four strong teams,” said Matt Bonenfant. “It’s been pretty solid for a group of four and getting better every year. I think the league is going upward not down.”
In seasons past, the community of Athol helped out with the league a lot. The signage on the outfield wall and support from the local businesses would help pay for every kid’s registration. With less support, the league has had to find ways to run a successful league with less. Allen would love to see more support from the community in the future.
“I would really love to get some more kids out here playing and get us back up to six or eight teams and I would like to get the town more involved because I always hear the old-timers telling me that way back when the kids didn’t have to pay for registration because all the businesses in town would all chip in and it would help pay for everybody’s registration,” said Allen. “Every year our sponsorship signs are less and less which is terrible for the kids because we need the money to run the league. It’s not cheap at all.”
Allen added that the league, to her knowledge, has one of the lowest registration fees in Massachusetts, even with less sponsorships.
Vitello said that he wants to foster a love for baseball going forward.
“I would love to see more kids in town interested in baseball,” said Vitello. “I would love to see the town buzz with baseball like it was in the past.”
Allen, Vitello, Lonnie Bonenfant and Mark Bonenfant all cited that they believe interest in multiple sports and the ability to play multiple sports has impacted the league’s number of participants.
“You’ve got spring soccer, spring basketball, you’ve got the street hockey and also there is a football league so the kids have so many different choices,” said Mark Bonenfant.
Even with access to a variety of different sports, volunteers of Chuck Stone Little League still have high hopes for the league in the future.
“Personally, I don’t know why you would want to miss baseball,” said Mark Bonenfant. “Right now we are holding steady with four teams and I think the league is going up not down. It’s a good thing and a ton of work is what makes this happen.”