The whys of coaching baseball

Pastime: Fathers reflect on furthering the tradition of the sport.

Howard At Play

April 18, 2004|By Lowell E. Sunderland | Lowell E. Sunderland,SUN STAFF

This weekend marks a tradition that goes hand in glove with spring: opening day for youth baseball in Howard County.

For coaches of T-ball players, those 5- or 6-year-olds who haven't the faintest idea what the game is about, it's time to crank up the patience and haul out the sense of humor. For recreation-level coaches, dust off your memories and polish your tact, remembering that your job is to teach, not win, while understanding that kids will be kids. And for travel-team coaches, rein in the ego. Remember that baseball is just a game and that no matter what, who wins and who loses will be forgotten, mostly, by midsummer.

For generations, fathers who love baseball have passed to sons exposure to the great American pastime. Here are snapshots of three Howard County fathers asked to reflect on various facets of furthering that tradition.

ROB DRAGONETTE, Western Howard County Youth Baseball and Softball. Dragonette coaches two recreation-level teams, one for 7- and 8-year-olds, the other for 9- and 10-year-olds. This is the fourth coaching season for the Clarksville accountant, who is 37 and also coaches basketball. Like most youth coaches, he got involved with his children, in this case, three sons who play on his two teams.

"The reason I coach is that I have more fun than the kids," Dragonette said. "The reason I'm a rec-level coach is that it's fun teaching baseball."

He recalled one 7- and 8-year-olds' game that symbolizes a reward for that teaching.

"Kids that age play six innings, and in that game, nine of my players made putouts. That's unusual, to have so many of your players directly involved. Afterward, one of the moms came up to me and said, `He [her son] finally gets the game.'"

Dragonette played four years of rec ball as a boy, and what he remembers most, he said, can be summed up as the fun and camaraderie of being on a team. "I remember that when a parent thinks his kid is in it to be the next Willie Mays. That's not what it's about. It's about kids playing ball, having fun."

CARLOS ACKER, Columbia Youth Baseball Association. Acker coaches the Columbia Red Storm, a travel team for 8-year-olds, boys who have demonstrated a higher level of skill than most their age. The River Hill village resident, just shy of 40, has seven years of coaching experience and also coaches basketball. He has two sons, 11 and 7. A former Army officer, Acker is now an insurance-fraud and security investigator.

"I try to teach my guys commitment to the team," he said. "It's more than the game that we coaches have to teach. We're charged with trying to develop these boys into young men. So even at such a young age, I tell them that being part of a team means everyone has a role and everyone is important."

Acker, who grew up as a "military brat" and was exposed to baseball and football while his father was stationed in Japan, said that coaching has taught him another thing: "You'd be surprised, even in a county that has as much as Howard County does, at how many boys need a male role model."

"One of my sons asked me once why we always had to drive to pick up a player or two before practice and then take them home," Acker said. "I told him, `They need the help, and that's what teammates do.' ... I guess it comes down to, coaching is a way I can give back to the community."

BILL WINDER, Atholton Youth Recreation Association. Winder is president of the AYRA, which has nearly 450 players this spring on 40 teams, all but one at the recreation level. He also coaches two teams, one for 9- and 10-year-olds, one for boys 13 and 14. He has been a physical-education teacher in county schools since 1972 and has been a high school baseball and football coach.

"As a boy in the New York area, I always played sports," Winder said. "Along the way, I had some good coaches, and I wanted to become one of them. To me, coaching is a lot of things - teaching the basics of the sport and building on that, as well as teaching about teamwork, self-sacrifice and that kind of stuff. But I've always thought that sports have to be fun, No. 1. I want players to learn but also to take away a good experience."

Winder, 53, a Towson University alumnus who played baseball there, teaches at Murray Hill Middle School and has three sons. Leading the AYRA was an easy decision, he said, given his background in sports.

Giving up high school coaching wasn't difficult, either, he said, because he did it "to have time with my [three] sons."

"I kept remembering all the time my father spent with me on a baseball field," he said. "We spent hours together, and it was something that I've never forgotten."

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