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Excitement springs eternal for youth ballplayers

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Neil Johnson
May 4, 2011
— Ryan Gasser stood along a chain fence on a baseball field at Milton’s Schilberg Park. He had a broken-in mitt and a number pinned to his shirt.

The 9-year-old Janesville boy was waiting in line with a dozen other youngsters for his turn to field pop flies. It was “draft day”—tryouts for the Milton School District Recreation Department’s summer baseball and softball leagues.

Above, clouds raced across a brisk blue sky. The grass was sharp green. Crisp American flags hoisted high on foul poles snapped in the wind. It was Gasser’s turn.

Milton Rec coach Todd Wolfe tossed a lazy fly ball that hung up in the wind. Gasser loped forward, speeding up as he realized the baseball was going to fall in front of him.

As he reached a near-sprint, his hat flew off his head, Willie Mays-style. Gasser leaned down and snagged the fly ball right at his shoes, practically grass-staining his mitt.

It was a clean catch.

This team’s big enough for everyone

Gasser and about 100 other youths ages 8 to 15 trying out at the draft were going to get placed on teams no matter how they performed.

Milton’s Rec coaches scored each player in fielding, hitting and running; league officials plan to use a computer program that divvies up the talent among teams.

The league’s emphasis is on teaching baseball and giving everyone a chance to play. It’s not about stacking teams.

“Kids at this level just need to play, to have an opportunity to develop,” coach Dennis Raabe said. “Who isn’t a star in fifth grade might develop into a top player by high school. It’s important to allow that to happen now.”

Still, the kids at the draft were eager to prove themselves. And some parents were just as eager.

“Remember, step and throw like I showed you, Kooper,” Kim Rosenbrook of Janesville yelled to her 9-year-old son.

“It’s his first year,” said Rosenbrook, beaming.

Kooper was taking ground balls at third base, and he didn’t look like a rookie. When a coach slapped a grounder to his right, Kooper scooted over and plucked up the ball easily.

Kooper came off the field smiling. Normally, he spends most of the summer with grandparents, but this year, he decided to try baseball. Add that to the list of other sports he plays: soccer, football, basketball, wrestling.

Confidence at the plate

Jerry Schliem, a longtime area high school baseball coach and an assistant coach for the Milton Rec league this summer, was feeding baseballs into a pitching machine set up on one of the fields at Schilberg Park.

Young hitters lined up to take turns showing off their swings. The machine was set to fling fastballs at 50 miles per hour; each hitter got three pitches to prove his or her skill.

“We don’t care if they hit a single pitch here,” Schliem said. “All we’re interested in doing is analyzing the swing.”

Ty Cunningham, a stocky right-hander from Janesville, sauntered up to the plate with an aluminum bat. Cunningham, 11, is making the jump this year from Junior League to Little League.

On the first pitch from the machine, Cunningham leaned out over the plate and took an awkward, one-handed hack—a swing and a miss.

“He’s lunging a little,” Schliem said as he bent over to grab another baseball. “You don’t want to do that. You’ve got to stay tall in the box.”

Although he couldn’t have heard Schliem’s comment, on his final pitch Cunningham did stay tall. He kept his body and his hands back, rotated his hips and connected with the ball solidly, yanking it hard into left field. He trotted off the field on a high note.

Springtime in their step

“I think I probably could have done better,” Cunningham said after his at-bat, although he didn’t seem too worried.

Chalking it up to a long winter, Cunningham said it will probably take a few weeks before he and a lot of other kids work the kinks out of their swings.

Cunningham’s attitude is what Schliem says he likes the most about coaching baseball. He says there’s no match for the excitement and optimism that young baseball players carry onto the field in the spring.

In his book, it’s about keeping that exuberance going.

“It’s not about hollering at a kid because he misses a ground ball or takes his eye off a pitch. They’re going to do those things. That’s baseball. You can’t destroy their feelings about this game at a young age. It’s too good of a game,” Schliem said.

Devon Hartman, a 16-year-old at Milton High School, volunteered to work with pitchers at the draft. This summer, he plans to work as an umpire for the league.

“I love seeing young kids learning this sport. That’s the best part about it, watching them grow into baseball,” he said.

A football injury has kept Hartman from playing baseball the past few years. Yet as soon as he walked onto the diamond, the smell of the grass hit him, and he couldn’t resist grabbing a bat and taking some swings.

“I hadn’t really been on a baseball field for a long time. Man, it feels great.”


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