REGION -- Do you hear that sound? The sweet ping of the bat, the pop of the mitt and, of course, the chanting and cheering of the young ballplayers. That's youth baseball at its finest. Parents line the baselines, offering positive encouragement for all players, no matter what uniform they are wearing.
About 10 years ago, baseball league directors from the surrounding towns of Shirley, Ayer, Groton Dunstable and Littleton decided to merge and form the MacIntosh League. Since then, the Mac League has welcomed new members.
"It spawned from small towns in the area who did not have a big enough program to support playing in town," said Ayer youth baseball director Jason Mayo. "They were looking for surrounding towns to get involved with and play games against. It made sense because they are all bordering towns and part of the same parent program, Cal Ripken."
When the league was started, town program directors were not sure about the type of success it would have.
"It worked out," Mayo said. "Everybody from the different towns had the same vision and the same goals in terms of youth sports. That (the Mac) went on with those main towns for about 10 years."
Recently, the Mac welcomed newcomers Townsend-Ashby and Pepperell to the league, after they switched over from Little League to Cal Ripken. The additions of Pepperell and Townsend-Ashby increased the number of games scheduled from 280 to 600.
"We went from about 26 teams up to 48 teams," said Shirley youth baseball president Terry Cooper. "It was a huge, huge increase in teams. It forced us to go into two divisions, which was very cool. We had an American and National division at all three levels."
The unique thing about the Macintosh League is that every town gets its chance to be the league president.
"Each team coordinates the league and the schedule every year," Mayo said. "People have come and go, but there are a couple of holdovers who have been there for a while.
"Every year, even though there are different people that are involved, everybody comes in with the same visions and same attitudes. They may bring fresh ideas, which is good. That always helps to develop the league, you can't just stay stagnant."
In Cal Ripken baseball there are three levels: Minors (8- and 9-year-olds), Majors-60 (10- and 11-year-olds), and Majors-70 (11- and 12-year-olds.) Minors are the first time young players get a chance to face pitching from their peers.
"At the younger levels, they are out there learning to play and having fun," Mayo said. "They are playing real baseball; they are running the bases and keeping score. At that age, they are a little bit competitive. It doesn't matter if they win or lose. They could lose 14-0, but as soon as the game is over, they are having fun and want to go have a hot dog and a cotton candy at the concession stand."
Over the last half decade, lacrosse has started to pick up steam in the area. Town baseball programs such as Littleton and Groton have taken a large blow due to the popularity of lacrosse.
"Littleton and Groton have probably taken the biggest hit," Cooper said. "Four years ago, Littleton had six teams at every level. Now, they have a total of five teams in all three levels.
There is a huge drop in baseball around here due to lacrosse. Lacrosse is a fast-paced game and an hour-long practice or game, where baseball can be an hour and a half, two hours. (Baseball) is a slower, more safety-conscious game. "
For the time being, America's pastime is still thriving in the region, and Cooper said that is due in large part to the hands-off approach Cal Ripken Baseball headquarters takes.
"Cal Ripken allows the towns to do what they've got to do to survive," said Cooper. "Little League is restrictive on how they do things, in terms of you need to use their bats and follow their rules. Cal Ripken allows you to make your own rules. When things are restrictive, it kind of hurts your ability to make things easier for your players and the parents."
By bringing in Townsend-Ashby-Pepperell, the Macintosh League now is able to offer a more localized league for its Babe Ruth (13- to 15-year-old) players. When Groton left the Macintosh Babe Ruth league for the Minuteman, it put the local Babe Ruth league in a bind.
According to Cooper, there are few more gratifying things than hearing the bat of young ballplayer sing that sweet ping, or seeing a kid make a great play.
"For me, that's the ultimate," said Cooper. "When you work a season with one of those kids and all of sudden he makes a great play in the field he wouldn't have made at the beginning of the year, they light up. It's cool. They go nuts.
"As a coach, that's stuff that gets you jacked up. That's the kind of thing that makes you say, 'hey, OK, I spent the time with the right kid making sure he developed and had a successful season where he wants to come back and play baseball."
Baseball season is winding down in the region, as Groton U12 and Ayer-Shirley U10 are the last two teams competing at the Cal Ripken State Tourney this weekend in Northbridge.