Relaxed pace of fall ball gets players up to speed for spring

Baseball: Two organizations teach children how to improve their fundamentals and emphasize fun in the process.

Howard At Play

October 03, 2004|By Jeff Seidel | Jeff Seidel,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

Matt DeFrank, 11, is learning more about the intricacies of baseball this fall. The fifth-grader at Rockburn Elementary School has been practicing and improving his pick-off move, as well as the best way to lead off first, second and third base.

"We're working on [different] things, and it's not as serious," Matt said. "It's good to learn like [this]."

Matt is playing fall baseball in the Elkridge Youth Organization, a group that has five teams of various ages working on the game in a low-key manner, much as the Howard County Youth Program does.

Tim Arnett, the HCYP's recreation-baseball commissioner, said his league wants a more relaxed atmosphere in the fall compared with spring and summer. That's when there are more players, standings and statistics and a lot of tension.

"The major focus [of fall baseball] is having fun and getting ready for the spring," Arnett said. "We really concentrate on the teaching - the fundamentals. The kids play positions they've never tried before."

No scores, no playoffs

HCYP has 35 teams and about 300 players in various age groups that play baseball throughout the fall - about half the number of players who sign up in the spring. The kids practice once a week and play games on Sundays through Oct. 24.

Leagues don't keep standings in the fall, and players use colors to identify themselves instead of names such as Orioles and Yankees. No team is allowed to score more than five runs in an inning - which shouldn't be too difficult because teams don't keep scores in an official manner.

But many children keep score themselves and are aware of the restriction.

The league uses paid umpires in other seasons, but parents volunteer for the job in the fall. They also try to keep wider strike zones during the fall - that forces players to swing more.

There's also an agreement that games can be stopped at any time for teaching points. For example, if a pitcher commits what might be considered a balk during a game, a coach can step onto the field, show him what he did wrong and help correct the problem.

No playoff system is in place. Players spend seven weeks playing baseball and learning how to work on their game.

`A relaxed format'

HCYP added three teams this year, which pleased Arnett, because the children have many other choices in the fall, such as soccer.

"We see it as a secondary sport in the fall," said Mike Burroughs, the HCYP's executive director. "We [use] a relaxed format ... that's instructional in nature."

Even more relaxed is the way the teams are chosen.

The players and parents form the fall teams. Children who know each other ask to play together, and parents can request that their children have a certain coach. It all comes together in a different way than in the spring, when the well-known drafts take place.

However, the 15-17 age group plays the traditional style of baseball - keeping score, etc. - against teams in other leagues.

Elkridge's efforts

The Elkridge Youth Organization runs a similar yet smaller fall program. There, five teams, made up of players ages 7 to 12, play eight games on Sundays and practice once a week.

Much like HCYP, Elkridge attempts to keep things low-key. The coaches teach the kids about baseball while having a little more fun than in the spring and summer leagues.

"We really emphasize just getting out there and working on the basics a bit and having a lot of fun," said Jim DeFrank, Matt's father, who coaches an 11-and-under team. "We have a good time, and they still learn the game."

DeFrank said that his program also likes to give players a chance to play different positions. For instance, children who don't usually pitch often find themselves on the mound.

That's where Matt has been for a while, continuing to improve on the basic part of his game.

He has worked hard on the ways to take leads off the bases. Players first take a primary lead and then add to it by walking a few more steps when the pitcher comes set.

It is a fundamental, and something a player can improve on during the fall - and have fun, too.

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