The newest league in District 12 will break a 40-year tradition tonight during the Tournament of Champions. Forged from rivals Dunedin American and National, Greater Dunedin plays in the TOC for the first time as a single league.
In an effort to boost sagging participation, the leagues merged Nov. 1 with the approval of Little League Baseball Inc.
"We took two leagues with a 40-year history and started over," Greater Dunedin president Steve Sandbergen said.
Dunedin American and National shared a heated rivalry that divided a city but helped bring success. During the 1990s, Dunedin American and National won 13 of 30 District 12 TOC baseball titles. Dunedin National boasted eight titles, while Dunedin American won five. Both leagues enjoyed success during the All-Stars Tournament, winning a combined 16 district titles. Dunedin National's major baseball team was the last from Pinellas County to advance to the 1991 Little League World Series and won the 1995 Senior Baseball World Series.
"There was so much animosity between the two leagues," said Sandbergen, a former Dunedin American player. "You were either one or the other. It was funny because (after the merger) parents from Dunedin American still sat on one side and Dunedin National on the other. It was a lot more than merging bats and balls together."
In 2001, Dunedin American lost its home at Grant Field when the Toronto Blue Jays arranged with the city to expand the spring training facility. Part of the deal included a new home for Dunedin American at Highlander Park, located next door to Dunedin National's Fisher Field.
"With the logistics of our field being separated by a parking lot, this gave us the opportunity to merge," Sandbergen said." Rapid development in surrounding communities also played a factor in the merger.
"It gets hard to compete with some of the other areas that are younger than Dunedin," former Dunedin National president Tim Malone said. According to Malone, Dunedin National's participation peaked at 750 and dropped to 300 last season. Consequently, neither Dunedin team has won a TOC championship since 1999.
The trend could change this week when the major and junior baseball teams compete for the District 12 title, but the true benefits of a combined league likely will not surface until the All-Stars Tournament. Players in the new league were re-drafted and dispersed to 35 new teams. The top teams from each division play in the TOC.
Greater Dunedin has 425 participants. The administration has been actively spreading the word of the new league at local schools. "We've made a solid commitment to the elementary schools and we're trying to take Little League to the kids," Sandbergen said.