Let me give you sports fans a one-two punch today. We'll talk some pioneering baseball on the first swing and give you a knockout free boxing show to complete the combo.
To revitalize youth baseball in the Annapolis and South County area, the Peninsula Athletic League has started a "Summer Sandlot Series," and the response has been terrific.
Ed Stubbs and Bill Bilasi, members of the PAL board of directors, started the program this summer to give the kids in their community something more after the regular season ends. PAL fields countywide teams in the Recreation and Parks program that concludes around July 1.
The Summer Sandlot Series was open to youngsters ages 8 to 13 who wanted to play another month. Nearly 90 youths signed up for the two-nights-a-week fun league. It's a league that kind of steps back in time, to when kids used to flock to local baseball diamonds early in the morning just to get a field, then play all day after picking teams by the old "catch the bat and first fingers on top of the knob gets first pick" method.
"Our purpose is to promote the recreation aspects of baseball in a relaxed atmosphere," said Stubbs, a graduate of Mount St. Joseph High and Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.
"The kids we have in this program are not stars, just kids who want to play and learn more baseball. We run the program kind of like pick-up games, with the kids choosing teams each night."
In the Annapolis Summer Sandlot Series, the players are broken down into three age groups: 8-9, 10-11 and 12-13, with about 30 in each division.
"We try to let the kids play all the positions, changing each inning, and we generally play six or seven innings," said Stubbs.
"The kids warm up, and we play a game each night. And it's been quite an experience seeing all these kids out at PAL park [in Bay Ridge area] a couple of nights a week."
PAL has a Little League program of nearly 500 players, and with about one-fifth now playing the extra month, it can only improve baseball in the Annapolis area, while creating a wholesome recreation experience for a lot of kids.
"There is no pressure in the program, just the kids having fun playing more games," said Stubbs.
The Severna Park Green Hornets started such a "second season" of baseball last summer, and it, too, has been very successful in creating an option for those who don't want to play soccer year-round.
In recent years, local youth baseball programs started in April and ended in mid- or late-June, so parents could plan vacations or send their children to summer camps for soccer, lacrosse and basketball. Everything but baseball.
Soccer, of course, is available 365 days a year. There are fall, winter, spring and summer leagues, and summer camps to cover the rest.
There is no question that soccer has become the most inexpensive form of day care around. All you have to do is put your child in soccer and you've got a full-time baby-sitting service that only costs the fee. But not everyone wants to play soccer non-stop, and, really, there's no need for it.
I've always thought our Little League baseball programs start too early and end too soon. Only the gifted players, the selected all-stars, get to play more by going to tournaments under the system used by most of the local programs.
Those who are not good enough to play on the all-star teams usually are done playing in June, even before school ends. Instead of playing baseball during the summer, when they are out of school,they are looking for other things to do.
How can we expect a young player to improve when his season is so short and not really in the summer? Young players should have the opportunity to play more baseball if they want to, and that's what the Green Hornets and PAL have allowed.
The extended program in those two communities is great for baseball, and, more importantly, for the kids. It's been a long time coming. I hope other large youth baseball organizations will follow suit.
"They're looking for something to do, and this gives them that, and a challenge, too," said Stubbs.
"In our area, the emphasis traditionally has been on lacrosse. But with programs like this, we could change things a little bit. I think baseball is catching on down here and look for our Summer Sandlot Series to get even bigger."
If more youth baseball organizations follow suit, maybe the county Rec and Parks Department can be moved to extend its select team programs. The department put a lid on its leagues at the end of June so rec coordinators could take off the rest of the summer.
Youth baseball was meant to be played in the summer, when the kids are out of school. Using vacations as an excuse to stop by mid- or late-June is a cop-out. The whole team doesn't go on vacation at the same time, does it?
Organizations like Severna Park and PAL have got the ball rolling, and as WMAR TV sportscaster Keith Mills likes to say, "Hats off to those guys."