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Mudville: November 28, 2020 4:27 am PDT
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Saving Baseball

John Fitzgerald is here to save baseball.

Once you’ve taught an entire country baseball, that country being Ireland, teaching young kids the game here in America is a piece of cake.

His help could not come at a better time for the game. Baseball better get its act together with the younger generation if it wants the popularity of the game to continue. Baseball’s numbers are shrinking while lacrosse and other sports are growing.

Just swing by any athletic fields and you will see for yourself. Keeping the kids interested and playing the game means they have to have fun and understand the game.

If you are one of those brave souls who volunteered to be a youth league baseball coach for the youngest of ages, Fitzgerald’s program: PlaySmallBall.org is his gift to you.

His Small Ball plan also works for softball.

Here at BallNine we look for answers. We are not here just to pontificate.

Anyone can do that – and everyone is doing that. You’ll find real answers to real baseball problems from the major league level down to tee-ball and after speaking with Fitzgerald, and watching his teaching video, it wouldn’t hurt some major leaguers to get with the program, too.

Fitzgerald wants to make sure young players understand baseball is a sport of movement.

Especially his segment on On Field Awareness, the essence of the game.

Years ago, I chronicled Fitzgerald’s experience of making a baseball documentary in Ireland. “The Emerald Diamond.’’ That film won the Critic’s Choice Award at the National Baseball Hall of Fame in 2006.

“People wanted to donate their time or make a financial contribution and there was no way to do that, so we started the Baseball United Foundation to send coaches and equipment overseas,’’ Fitzgerald explained to me what the Emerald Diamond eventually did for the Emerald Island.

“We’ve been doing that for over a decade and that is where we are seeing how you have to teach the game, how you have to compete with these other sports. Because over there they are starting from zero. We started the Small Ball program in Westchester County in New York last year and we managed to keep it going this year. It’s growing pretty fast.’’

Not easy to do in Covid times.

This is an offshoot of that Ireland program where coaches teach a totally unfamiliar game to people who have no clue about baseball. Baseball in Ireland is moving along 16 years later, and Fitzgerald is proud of that progress.

He serves as the organization’s executive director and the foundation supports the development of baseball programs in Ireland and other countries where the game is not traditionally played.

In addition, Fitzgerald produced and directed “Playing for Peanuts,’’ a fantastic 10-episode documentary about independent minor league baseball in Georgia in 2007, focusing on Wally Backman’s team and that in itself is a baseball tutorial. Major League front offices filled with Ivy Leaguers should watch all 10 episodes to learn nuances of the game. The documentary aired nationally on Comcast Sportsnet and has received over 18 million views on YouTube.

All those baseball lessons helped build this latest endeavor.

“Wally is a genius at baseball,’’ Fitzgerald told BallNine. Mets fans would agree.

If I were 7 years old and learned this from Wally Backman? You'd be damn sure I loved baseball for the rest of my life.

“By watching him teach the game and seeing how he related to guys, whether they had been in the majors or were back at the lowest level or they were right out of college trying to move up, he taught them the same way,’’ Fitzgerald said. “He related so well to them. The act of teaching is not easy to do, and he was so good at communicating to these guys.’’

That is the key to Fitzgerald’s program, minus the colorful language, of course.

“You need to tell these kids what is happening so they understand the game,’’ Fitzgerald said.

That brings us to the art of running in baseball, quickly becoming a lost art.

“How are our kids supposed to fall in love with the game if they are not focusing on running around the bases,’’ Fitzgerald told me. “We’ve done some work in Ireland with Rounders, one of the four Gaelic sports. You see Rounders. You see kickball. And that is the thing, running around the bases. We teach everything but that. If you are 15 years old and you are working on your launch angle and you never learned why to love the game, you are just really good at it, what’s going to happen when you are 22 years old in Double A in a town you never heard of, I’ve seen it, guys burn out. The point of baseball is you go first base, second base, third base and home. You score. The point is not just hitting a home run or striking out. You have to go around the bases or prevent the other team from going around the bases. That’s really what it all comes down to.’’

That lesson works for five-year-olds or any youth age team.

Parent testimonials from his Baseballunitedfoundation.org page are impressive and his 40-minute video on YouTube, PlaySmallBall.org is a step by step guide. I urge all youth coaches, baseball and softball, to watch.

“Running is fun, running in baseball is critical to understanding game play’’

Teaching the tee-ball age player through his clinics is a challenge but once you see the results in his video, you will see how easily it is to make baseball fun again and that is the key premise.

Fitzgerald, a communications consultant in the healthcare industry, takes the approach that to make it fun, the first thing he does is bring in the running aspects of the game. One of the things I like best about this program is Fitzgerald raises the bar, he doesn’t lower it.

That goes back to his introduction to coaching tee-ball.

I’ve coached at all levels, baseball and softball, so I know the challenges a coach faces these days. My three children are all grown up, so I did not have to deal with the helicopter parents of today or as one of my friends call them, lawnmower parents.

Parents want to jump on a riding mower and cut all the obstacles away, clear a clean path for their kid. And that’s a problem.

In Fitzgerald’s program, parents as well as the children can be taught the game and enjoy the experience. “What I’m hearing from coaches we sent to Ireland, teaching 14-year-olds in Ireland is the same as teaching a four, five or six-year old in America because neither one of them has any familiarity with the game,’’ Fitzgerald said.

“We are finding kids are playing tee-ball, then they go to coach pitch and then by eight a huge percentage are gone. It’s boring. It’s something they do for the uniform. The parents love it. The parades, the team photo but by eight years old they have found something else. They are done with it. They spent four years and they really don’t understand the game. That’s really where the whole problem starts.’’

Fitzgerald, 43, starts with this premise.

Lollipops just taste better when you EARN them.

“Running is fun, running in baseball is critical to understanding game play,’’ he said. “I was told when I first became a tee-ball coach if you can get every player to run to first base when they hit the ball, instead of running to third base or just standing there and just watching the ball, you will have done your job at the end of the season.

“I found that frightening. If that’s what we are teaching our coaches, that’s completely wrong. That is lowering the bar to such a point that we are accepting the fact that if every player knows where first base is by the end of a six or eight-week season than we’ve succeeded, I reject that. We reject that. That’s wrong.

“We need to focus on running,’’ Fitzgerald said. “Because it’s fun for the kids and because it teaches them the order that they run the bases, it teaches them where to throw the ball when they are in the field. They will not understand what baseball is and why it is an enjoyable game if they don’t understand how running works as a mechanism of game play.’’

Then once tagging is introduced it adds another level of excitement to the game. Players can’t figure out where to tag a runner if they don’t understand the concept of running. “That is something we have not been teaching players,’’ he noted.

After watching this Covid MLB postseason, I can add that some major leaguers don’t understand how running works as a mechanism of game play. Look at all the baserunning mistakes. And while we are at it, look at the success that Mookie Betts had running the bases, and it wasn’t just because he was fast, it was because of his awareness made a difference and helped propel the Dodgers to their first World Series victory since 1988.

The game has so much more to offer and Fitzgerald builds a strong foundation on fielding, hitting and even the layout of the field. After explaining and showing his players how a field is marked including foul poles, Fitzgerald says the players completely buy in.

It brings their little ballpark home to them. And baseball is all about coming home.

Fitzgerald reached an “Aha!” moment during a practice session. The kids were exhausted from running.  He took the players out to the foul pole to relax. “I explained to them where the foul pole was and where the foul lines were and then the next week we come back to the clinic and three kids, independent of each other had gone to a Yankee game and were amazed that they had seen a foul pole. Little things like that are so overlooked.

“It can really make the difference between a kid who goes to a Yankee game and is focused entirely on the food or a kid that goes to the Yankee game and goes, ‘Wow, there’s a foul pole. This is exactly like the field I have back home.’ ’’

Good old fashioned kickball, something we all grew up with, helps pave the way but Fitzgerald also uses kickball to help teach players how to field with two hands and the proper way to throw. Much of his clinic work is done with plastic balls and bats and a kickball.

Nothing elaborate here, and any program can get the ball rolling with this little amount of equipment. The basics are covered, including a positive tone of voice and being upbeat and then there are little tricks too like giving out lollipops after practice.

“Lollipops don’t cost a lot, anybody can buy a bag and that will last you for the season,’’ Fitzgerald said.

It’s all about raising the fun bar.

In the hitting segment, it is about pointing your feet toward the plate and learning to swing hard and using your own hitting mechanics, something my BallNine Roundhouse friend former major leaguer Jeff Frye endorses.

“We use tees only as a training tool, for most of practices and clinics we are trying to get them to hit an underhand tossed ball,’’ Fitzgerald explained. “Eventually we go overhand. But on Day 1 we do not start with a tee, we start with a tossed ball. If we have to use more of a tee approach we will do that but as a coach I am more interested in seeing a player hit a beach ball or a larger ball, even a kickball than I am in seeing them hit a ball off the tee. I would rather expand the size of the ball and make them track that ball than hit off a tee. A tee is a crutch and it’s boring for them. Once they hit a tossed ball, we will bring out the tee to work on location of pitches or if they have a hitch in their swing or anything like that.

“We try to keep the mechanics up to them. If there is a major problem in their swing, we work with them but what we are mainly trying to do is get them into a consistent batting stance and understand where they stand in relationship to everything else that happens in the game,’’ Fitzgerald said. “If they point their toes at home plate and put their hands in the correct order on the bat, you are far ahead in the game at that point. Point your toes at home plate and let’s go, let’s hit… an upbeat, positive situation.’’

Fielding is taught using both hands and moving feet to the ball. By using a bigger ball it forces the player to use both hands. Flat gloves or paddles are also used as teaching tools.

That is something that Ron Washington uses with his infielders at the Braves.

Throwing is learned from the goal post position. Throwing is harder for the young players to grasp. The glove hand will be lowered and pointed at the target, the back hand is up in the throwing position. Here an oversized ball, like a kickball, also is a good tool.

Why?

“It’s a rotation drill and basically they are using the kickball to rotate and throw into a net,’’ Fitzgerald said. “It puts it together for them. They focus on the target, but they understand there is a bit of power and force that comes from rotating their lower body.’’

Simple.

Another objective is Awareness. My favorite. Field locations are pointed out. They will walk the bases, starting at home plate as a group. “We review with the players and the parents so those concepts can be reinforced at home,’’ Fitzgerald said.

Pop quizzes are given during practice, identifying different parts of the field and so forth. “It gets everybody thinking,’’ Fitzgerald said. “Kids love to be called on and even if they don’t remember, they will remember the next time. Each segment is broken down into 12-minute chunks. There is always a wrap up and there is running in the wrap up.’’

Then come the lollipops.

You can check out John’s YouTube video here, or head over to his website to learn more about the work Fitzgerald is doing with in youth baseball.

 

44+ years, columnist at NY Post for the last 23 years prior to joining BallNine. Elected to the NY Baseball Hall of Fame. Former SportsTalk Host (KFMB), ESPN’s First Take and Cold Pizza contributor. Frequent guest on radio shows and podcasts nationwide. Author of seven books. Seen in episode 10 of ESPN’s “The Last Dance” (the one with Dennis Rodman). First baseball interview he conducted was with Thurman Munson. Now you know why he is America’s Most Beloved Sportswriter.

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