Roll has enjoyed great ride in Little League Baseball

Photo by Greg Eans, Messenger-Inquirer | geans@messenger-inquirer.com John Roll, commissioner of Little League Baseball District 1, stands outside of one the fields at Country Heights Elementary School Tuesday.

John Roll sat on a picnic bench Tuesday afternoon at Country Heights Elementary School during the Little League Baseball District 1 All-Star Tournament.

He had been asked what the game has meant to him -- and there was an extended pause.

Roll, 74, has been the district's administrator for 31 years, and he has seen five of his 11-12 District championship teams capture Great Lakes Regional championships and advance to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

But there's been much, much more to it than that.

"I got into this position because I had a love for the game and wanted to be a positive influence on kids," Roll finally said. "But I'll be the first to tell you that Little League has given me far more than I've given Little League, and I'd like to believe I've given it a lot."

What Roll is alluding to is the passing of his wife of 46 years, Betty Jon, on Aug. 13, 2014 after a long battle with cancer.

"When my wife passed away, it was very hard for me," he said. "Little League helped me so much at that time because it gave me a purpose to live, it gave meaning to my life, and it reminded me of what I got into this for in the first place -- it's helped keep me going."

Roll's origins with youth baseball extend back to 1950, when he played recreational baseball as a 5-year-old in his hometown of Greenville in Muhlenberg County.

"I loved baseball right from the beginning, and I've loved it ever since," said Roll, a 1963 graduate of Greenville High School. "I love baseball because it's a team sport made up of individuals, and the fact that everyone can contribute.

"Size doesn't keep you out, nothing keeps you out. There's a place in baseball for everyone who has a love for the game."

In the years since, his passion for the sport and his appreciation of Little League Kentucky District 1 has continued to grow. His business card says it all: Kentucky District 1, Second to None.

"The only thing I'm more proud of than District 1," Roll said, "is the day I got married and the day my daughter was born.

"Over the years, people have come to associate me with that motto I came up with about us being second to none. That's the first thing out of my mouth every time I'm at the regional in Indianapolis -- people get a kick out of it."

Shortly after the turn of the century, Roll began believing that Kentucky District 1 could become a national factor.

"The first trip I made to Williamsport was in 2002 to watch (Louisville) Valley Sports compete in the Little League World Series." Roll said. "Valley Sport had beaten Owensboro Southern (3-0) for the state championship that year, and I understood how great that Southern team was.

"So, I was curious to see how good Valley Sports really was. Well, they wound up winning the whole thing. I knew then that Southern would continue to get better, and that (District 1) had a real chance to get a team to Williamsport."

It happened two years later in 2004, when Southern won the first of two consecutive regional championships. Of more recent vintage, District 1 twice been represented by Bowling Green East at the LLWS, and Logan County also has made a trip.

"For me, there was nothing like seeing a District 1 player walk onto the field for the first time at Williamsport -- I can still see it in my mind," Roll said. "I can't put into words what that meant to me and our district.

"Baseball fans who have never made a trip to the Little League World Series are missing the opportunity of a lifetime. In terms of youth sports, there's just nothing at all that compares to it in the entire world -- and you have to go to fully understand what I'm talking about."

District 1's successes have been well-documented through the years, including one stretch when the district won 16 state titles in 19 years in the 11-12 age division.

"Even in our bad years," Roll noted, "we're better than most districts in Kentucky."

For several years, Little League had battled travel ball and the influx of other baseball organizations to maintain its foothold on the game -- and it's been a serious, ongoing challenge.

"I don't think Little League is as good from top to bottom as it once was," Roll concedes. "From an overall standpoint, travel ball has hurt.

"At the same time, I believe our top-tier programs are more or less as good as they ever were. In terms of the elite programs and elite All-Star teams, there remains a very high level of play."

Through it all, Roll counts himself a blessed man. Thanks to Little League, he has been in the company of U.S. presidents, A-list entertainers, and prominent sports figures.

"I met George W. Bush at the International (Little League) Congress, of which I was chairman, in 2010 in Lexington," Roll said. "I've met guys like (former MLB commissioner) Bud Selig, Hall of Fame players like Frank Robinson, Nolan Ryan, Sandy Koufax -- all through Little League Baseball.

"It's been an unbelievable life experience."

And, one Roll hopes will continue a while longer.

"I've been voted in (as District 1 administrator) for four more years," said Roll, who spent 33 years with the U.S. Postal Service in Greenville, and 29 years in the U.A. Army Reserves. "I will stay for three of them and make a decision about the fourth, considering my health and those around me."

When not at a Little League game, Roll can usually be located during good-weather months at Central City Country Club, where he attempts to play golf virtually every day.

After all these years, Roll is still in Greenville, where he resides with his Chihuahua, Lexie.

"I still love baseball, and that never goes away," he said. "We'll see how things go over the next few years -- I'd love to stay part of Little League for as long as I can."

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