Youth leagues create the stars of tomorrow

Published 12:01 am Wednesday, June 6, 2012

LAUREN WOOD | THE NATCHEZ DEMOCRAT — Coach Boo Brumfield talks to Nicholas Beach, 6, on third base during the team Natchez Salvage’s tee ball game Tuesday night at Duncan Park.

NATCHEZ — Behind every good high school baseball program is a youth baseball program that helped nurture young athletes.

With both the Dixie Youth and T.M. Jennings youth baseball leagues giving Miss-Lou children an opportunity to get started on baseball at an early age, much of the game’s basics are already instilled in them by the time they reach high school.

Mike Bowlin, who heads up the Vidalia Dixie Youth league, said children who go through the Dixie Youth program are expected to know all the basics about the game by the time they reach middle school.

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“The main thing is, the younger they start and the more they learn early, the better they are, because you don’t have to teach them the basic,” Bowlin said. “Once they’re in junior high, they know it, and you don’t have to spend an entire year teaching it.”

Cathedral High School baseball coach Craig Beesley said having local youth baseball programs helps children determine whether or not baseball is something they want to stay involved in.

“It gives them a good foundation for baseball and lets them see if they have a love for it at that age,” Beesley said. “You don’t want a situation where they get burned out or don’t want to play anymore after they get done with youth baseball.”

With youth baseball being divided into tee ball, coach pitch and player pitch levels, different aspects of the game are stressed to the children, depending on the level.

Tee ball

Tee ball ranges from ages 4 to 6, and getting the children to even pay attention at that age is quite a challenge, Natchez Salvage Dixie Youth coach Boo Brumfield said.

“Their attention spans just aren’t long enough to really get into it with them,” he said.

Because of that, only the bare minimum is taught to the children, such as baserunning, fielding ground balls and throwing to first base. Brumfield said it is not realistic to expect children to catch fly balls at that age.

“We have a few that are older where you can teach them to catch (fly balls), but for the most part, they just don’t catch it at that age,” Brumfield said.

Carlos Williams, who coaches the Alexander Body Shop tee ball team for T.M. Jennings, said having a tee allows coaches to teach proper hitting technique.

“Standing at the tee, we try to get it at their level so they can swing the bat level,” Williams said.

A big issue with youth baseball is whether 4 through 6 is an appropriate age to keep score. The T.M. Jennings and Vidalia Dixie Youth leagues keep score in tee ball, but the Natchez Dixie Youth League doesn’t.

Even though he coaches in a league that doesn’t keep score in tee ball, Brumfield said he can see the advantages of keeping score at that young an age. Under the current system in Natchez, children get to run the bases even if they get out.

“No one wants to lose, and both sides think they win every game,” Brumfield said. “By the time you get to the coach-pitch level, where teams do win and lose, some of the kids might want to poke their lips out if they get out. If you instill in them at a young age that there are winners and losers, that may not be an issue.”

Porky Smith, director of Natchez Dixie Youth, said the league does not keep score in tee ball because they want it to be strictly about having fun and learning the bare essentials of playing baseball.

“You don’t want 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds to be competitive at that age,” Smith said.

Bowlin, however, said the Vidalia Dixie Youth league keeps score because it allows children to learn an aspect of the game that is important.

“Twenty years ago, a lot of kids didn’t start out until they were 8 or 9,” Bowlin said. “Kids today know as much at 5 and 6 as we did at 8 and 9. I think, especially when they’re 5 and 6, that they need to start learning what it’s like to get people out.”

Although T.M. Jennings keeps score in tee ball, Williams said the final score is not something that is stressed to the players.

“We try not to stress it because it’s more about teaching people how to compete and getting them down with the basics and fundamentals, so that when they do move up, they’ll have a good knowledge of the game,” Williams said.

Not focusing on scoring also gives children good morale when it comes to trying hard, Williams said.

“The main thing we try to teach is sportsmanship, which shows kids that, whether you’re winning or losing, there’s a way to play this game, and any sport. You can win or lose and be honorable at either one.”

Williams said he does not put up with any taunting. If a child is taunting another child, Williams said he pulls both of them to the side and explains to the child doing the taunting that what he is doing is inappropriate.

“I tell the one that’s doing the taunting that, one day, you’ll have that same shoe on, regardless of what it is,” Williams said. “It may not be today, but you’ll have that same shoe on where you’re losing, and you wouldn’t want them taunting you or laughing at you and making you feel embarrassed about what you’re trying to do and accomplish.”

Coach pitch

When a child moves up to coach pitch at ages 7 and 8, a new aspect of baseball opens up for children: having a baseball throw at them instead of it sitting on a tee.

Jerome Timmons, coach of the T.M. Jennings Dream team, said 7 and 8 year olds begin learning how to use hand-eye coordination in baseball when they make it to coach pitch.

“When they move to coach pitch, they have to coordinate and hit the ball as it’s coming out of the machine,” Timmons said.

“It takes a year or so for them to adjust to that, so usually when they move up at age 7, they’re not as proficient. When they’re 8, it’s usually a lot easier for them.”

Now that the players no longer have a tee, Timmons said he stresses proper stance and trying to make contact with the ball. Since a machine lets the ball come at children at the same speed, it gives them a chance to identify which pitches are good without having to worry about a pitch changing speeds, Timmons said.

“The machine is not consistent — it’s going to throw some high balls and some low balls — so it teaches the kids to watch for a good pitch and swing at it,” he said.

Timmons also said coach pitch teams continue to build upon the fundamentals taught at the tee-ball age, but they also begin to teach children how to catch popups and fly balls.

Player pitch

Children are finally allowed to pitch from ages 9 and older, but local coaches said they try to ease young pitchers into the art of pitching.

David Day, who coaches the Redd Pest 11 and 12 year olds in Natchez Dixie Youth, said pitchers are only allowed to throw pitches that are deemed safe for a pitcher’s arm.

“All pitchers throw basically two pitches, the fastball and a circle changeup,” Day said. “It’s a natural motion; it doesn’t snap their arm. It’s what will help them have a prolonged period of playing, because there’s less stress on the arm. We don’t teach them curveballs or any of that stuff. We tell them they should not even attempt that until they’re 13 or 14 years old.”

Earnest Woods, head coach for the B&K Bank T.M. Jennings 11 and 12 year olds, said he allows his pitchers to throw breaking balls, but not too often.

“I have a five-pitcher rotation, and they know the curveball, but I might let them throw it once in a game,” Woods said. “If I see it (being thrown more), I’ll stop them, because I’m not about to hurt a child.”

Base-stealing is also incorporated into the player-pitch leagues, since catchers are catching balls thrown at them by their teammates. Louis Johnson, who coaches the Rat McGowen T.M. Jennings 9 and 10 year olds, said he teaches his players how to get a good jump when trying to swipe a bag.

“After the pitcher throws the ball and it comes across the plate, they know to steal,” Johnson said.

Johnson also said he has his players run laps around the field during practice in order to build up stamina.

“If the game’s in the fifth inning, and if you’re tired before then, that’s a problem,” Johnson said.

Universal principals

Stressing the basic fundamentals of hitting and fielding is done at every age a child plays. Once they hit ages 11 and 12, though, Day said that is the age when players are right on the cusp of finding out whether they have what it takes to play high school baseball.

“At this point, they’re beginning to separate themselves to see who can play at the next level, or the high school level, so we just want to instill in them and make sure they have the fundamentals of the game,” Day said.