Players, coaches instruct area kids at annual RailCats camp
By Anthony D. Alonzo Post-Tribune correspondent August 21, 2013 9:24PM
RailCats center fielder Drew Martinez answers game-related questions from youth baseball camp participants at U.S. Steel Yard in Gary on Saturday, Aug. 17. The annual event is supported by the Home Field Advantage charitable foundation.
Updated: August 22, 2013 10:50PM
RailCats players and staff members dedicated a recent afternoon in the middle of a tough home stand to run the club’s annual youth baseball camp.
Around 150 Gary-area kids and teens trickled into U.S. Steel Yard for the event that’s been a tradition since the independent team landed in the Steel City in 2002.
The afternoon of kids imitating proper batting stances and teens digging in to run the bases was an early idea of U.S. Steel officials who partnered with the RailCats and the city through the Home Field Advantage foundation.
Al Spajer, director of community affairs for U.S. Steel Gary Works, said the corporate-to-kids charitable initiative was a part of the more than century-old steel company’s “good neighbors” policy.
“(Home Field Advantage) is specifically designed to provide baseball opportunities for boys and softball opportunities for girls in Gary, Indiana,” Spajer said just minutes after throwing out the camp’s ceremonial first pitch. “This gives the kids something worthwhile to do.”
Little League participation in Gary has steadily increased over the last several years, according to Spajer. Instead of dilapidated baseball fields hosting neglected teams, the Gary foundation has supported renovation and a renewal of interest in the sport.
Spajer said that playing baseball, like school and work, is a “vehicle to adulthood.”
RailCats manager Greg Tagert joined position coaches and four players on the field as kids grouped by age rotated through skills stations. The pro players’ dedication to the sport was on display as they came in hours before they normally would arrive for an evening game.
“What our coaches and instructors — many of whom are players — will provide today is just a glimpse of how fun it can be to be on a baseball field,” said Tagert, who is in his ninth season managing the RailCats. “What’s better than to be out on a summer day in August running around on a baseball field?”
Tagert said he also likes other sports that are more popular among young people, but hopes that at every level baseball could draw the interest of more youths.
Kids and teens mostly from three Gary Little Leagues — Longfellow, Metro and Miller — gleaned fielding tips from Memphis-native and RailCats shortstop Zac Mitchell. Catchers Ryan Babineau and Craig Maddox offered hitting tips, with a focus on bunting. And outfielder Drew Martinez timed players as they slid into second base.
Part of the 10-year-old group, Gary youngsters DeSean Williams and Chyeanne McDaniels put baseball on the top of their list of fun activities.
“I’d tell my (family and friends) that we went to the baseball stadium and we played baseball,” Williams said with McDaniels looking on. “They taught me about catching and running bases and everything.”
Babineau was meticulous in setting up his hitting station, complete with small orange cones placed near home plate.
“Anytime you have an opportunity to No. 1, give back, and No. 2, teach kids something that they might not learn until high school or college, (it’s great). I wish I would have had some people teaching me things at a younger age.”
McDaniels called the opportunity “great.”
“We got to be out here with the professional baseball players,” she said with a smile.