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How much time is left for Concord’s treasured Sunset League?

  • Century 21 pitcher Tom Hyland takes the mound during the Concord Sunset League championship series game at Memorial Field in Concord on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Century 21 defeated Grappone, 9-0, in six innings. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff Century 21 pitcher Tom Hyland takes the mound during the Concord Sunset League championship series game at Memorial Field in Concord on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Century 21 defeated Grappone, 9-0, in six innings.

  • Grappone's Will Owen (15) walks to the plate at the start of an inning during the Concord Sunset League championship series game at Memorial Field in Concord on Wednesday, August 9, 2017. Century 21 defeated Grappone, 9-0, in six innings. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Grappone’s Cam Angus (center) warms up in front of the dugout during the Concord Sunset League championship series game at Memorial Field in Concord on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Century 21 defeated Grappone, 9-0, in six innings. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staffGrappone’s Cam Angus (center) warms up in front of the dugout during the Concord Sunset League championship series game at Memorial Field in Concord on Wednesday, Aug. 9, 2017. Century 21 defeated Grappone, 9-0, in six innings.

  • Century 21's Tom Hyland (19) throws a pitch during the Concord Sunset League championship series game at Memorial Field in Concord on Wednesday, August 9, 2017. Century 21 defeated Grappone, 9-0, in six innings. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Thursday, August 10, 2017

By the time the best-of-five championship series rolls around for Concord’s Sunset League, the question looms once again if it will be the last.

Even though the league holds the historic title of oldest after-supper amateur baseball league in the country, attendance has dropped, volunteers are hard to find, and finances are foul.

The Sunset League has been around since 1909, and for all those involved, it’s been a constant summer delight. For some players, it means a chance to stay in shape for the college baseball season. For others, the season just fits their schedule or offers a chance to hang out with friends.

“This, you get out of work and can go play during the week and still have the weekends off,” said Tom Heath, coach of the league’s Grappone team. “We’re all just friends here.”

Heath, who is in his first year as coach (a loose term in the four-team league), is a second-generation player, after his father, Glenn Heath, took to the diamond in the league. Tom Heath’s brother and cousin also play for Grappone.

The rest of Grappone are all Concord High School graduates, now out of college, who wanted to stick together and keep playing baseball. They’ve been together for at least three years and don’t have any current plans to stop.

With such a loyal group of players and with multiple generations of families sticking around, it’s hard to imagine the league would be at risk of shutting down.

Yet the league is burdened with a handful of problems and with no clear solutions in sight, the future is as shaky as it’s ever been in its 108-year run.

Enter Stephen DeStefano, the man single-handedly shouldering much of the burden.

“I’ve been involved in the league since 1974 – I played, I run the league, and I coach.” said DeStefano, league president.

DeStefano is Century 21’s coach – and also the owner of Century 21 Circa ’72, the real estate firm sponsoring the team. He recruits players, runs the league website, gets advertisements, and does just about everything else the league needs. He’s a one-man army, but he’ll be the first to admit that it’s a challenge keeping the league afloat.

“It’s tough,” DeStefano said. “It takes most of my summer, which is kind of a pain, but I’m not letting this die on my watch.”

While DeStefano said he’d like someone to take over coaching so he can focus on his other roles, he might not have any choice in the matter.

“Everyone likes to play, no one wants to coach – no one wants to do the dirty work,” Glenn Heath said. “When I was playing, the older guys would do all the administrative work, and now, there’s not any older guys out here.”

Without that older generation to take over business and coaching aspects, much of that work falls to DeStefano.

Heath is one of three coaches that also plays on the team, a breakdown of roles that might hurt the quality of play.

“I don’t really do a whole lot of coaching, to be honest with you,” Tom Heath said. “The most coaching I really do is participating in our team group chat.”

The league is meant to be a fun-foremost league, but without a consistently high level of play, some viewers might be turned off.

Fan turnout is another issue, as the majority of the people who do show up are what DeStefano refers to as “friends and girlfriends.”

“There used to be thousands of people at White’s Park when the league first started,” DeStefano said. “Now, this is pretty much it.”

While there are some loyal fans beyond friends and family, turnout is limited.

“I don’t know that the community really knows a lot about this out here,” Glenn Heath said.

A lack of fans means sponsors are less tempted to support a team, which is another big issue. This season, there were only four teams able to secure sponsors, compared to some previous years where as many as seven teams would compete.

That number dropped even lower toward the end of the season when one of the teams dropped out, leading to an unusual three-team playoff.

Without sponsors jumping on board, it again falls on DeStefano to make sure the league stays around.

“I usually write a check at the end of the year to balance the book – it doesn’t make any money,” DeStefano said.

Getting players isn’t as troubling or difficult as some other issues, but it’s a problem all the same.

“The hard part is they play and then graduate,” DeStefano said of college players, “Then they’re done. We only have two players from last year’s team.”

Such high turnover means DeStefano has to sometimes rely on word-of-mouth to get new players – not the most reassuring method.

It’s a combination of problems that has put the league in troubled waters, and with really only one person holding it all together, Glenn Heath and other league faithfuls are hoping for a sunrise instead of a sunset for the future.

“If it weren’t for Steve, it would all fall apart,” Glenn Heath said. “He keeps this league going.”