Note: Special thanks to Baseball Manitoba for submitting this article to Baseball Canada.
You’re six years old and you’ve been standing in left field for five innings.
You struck out on three pitches in your only trip to the plate. The only flies you’ve chased are the ones buzzing around you on the warm summer night.
With the crack of a bat a ball arcs toward you, but it bounces off your glove. You three-hop it back to the infield and go back to waiting for another ball to come your way. It could be a while...
Baseball can be a challenging game for its youngest fans, often kids whose passion outpaces their skills. The best players in the world miss the ball fully seven out of every 10 times at the plate, so it’s hard to expect a five-year-old to put the leather in play with any consistency. That means a lot of kids are left idle in the field, and a lengthy string of strikeouts ultimately doesn’t benefit anyone but the pitcher.
Still, kids are passionate about baseball, and Major League stars such as Justin Morneau and Jason Bay are creating fields of dreams in the same way Steve Nash and Mike Weir inspired young athletes to pick up basketballs and nine irons. And from a purely financial standpoint, playing baseball in college can be a great way to offset the rising costs of a post-secondary education while having fun on the diamond.
Recognizing that the love of the game can be derailed by its complexity, Baseball Canada launched its Rally Cap Program in 2006 in an attempt to improve players’ skills and keep children between four and seven coming back to the ballpark.
A modified version of baseball, a Rally Cap game features three teams of six players competing for an hour. Two teams play each other at a time, while the third practices skills in the outfield. After 20 minutes, the teams rotate, and at the end of the night each team has played two 20-minute mini-games and had one practice.
The games themselves can be modified in a number of ways to ensure participation. For example, all players bat in each half-inning, and there are no walks or strikeouts. A tee can be used to put the ball in play, or a coach can roll throw the ball into play while a youngster hits the bases. The defence can actually switch positions after each batter, much like players rotate on a volleyball court, which gives everyone a chance to learn the various positions.
Outfitted with jerseys provided by the program’s Manitoba sponsor—Tim Hortons—kids hone their skills in the areas of throwing, catching, hitting, and base running, while also developing general baseball knowledge. Coaches have the option of awarding players coloured Baseball Canada hats based on their improvement in these areas.
The anticipated result is a group of happy, skilled players who will love the game for the rest of their lives.
Baseball Manitoba's Jason Mateychuk notes that the Rally Cap philosophy makes the game 'more fun and more active for the kids.'
“I’m amazed that as many kids have continued playing baseball, as inherently boring as baseball is at that level if you don’t make any adaptations to it,” said Jason Mateychuk, Baseball Manitoba Vice-president of Development—Grassroots. “This is meant to modify the game in a way that’s more fun and more active for the kids.”
Mateychuk notes that the program has met with occasional resistance from traditional parents who don’t want to alter the game, but watching his own three children play a version of Rally Cap has convinced him that the program works. He also believes Rally Cap is about more than just baseball.
“Being a great baseball player at the age of 12 has little bearing on overall success,” he said. “Sure, we hope that we get Major League-quality athletes in baseball, but I think a more important push globally is that we’re getting more kids active. They’re getting in a sport that can develop them as baseball players but can actually develop them in a whole bunch of different areas.”
That sentiment is echoed by Winnipeg Goldeyes general manager Andrew Collier, who also happens to be a Rally Cap parent. While Collier thinks grassroots programs could benefit professional ball clubs 15 years down the line, he says it’s more important to develop the love of the game at an early age.
“It makes it fun for the kids,” Collier said. “They’re not standing around at the various positions trying to play a baseball game. I don’t think that’s what four- and five- and six-year-olds need to do. They need to be moving all the time and learning new skills.
“Standing out in left field for a couple of hours doesn’t do anything, and I think that’s why a lot of kids are moving to soccer. But the Rally Cap program encourages the kids to have fun learning some skills while being active.”
Donovan Collier (pictured here with his dad, Andrew) is in his third year of Rally Cap Baseball and is excited to be back on the diamond.
At the tender age of five, Collier’s son Donavan is already a grizzled Rally Cap veteran who will be suiting up again this year in Charleswood.
“He loves it,” Collier said. “This is his third year, and he looks forward to it all winter, to get back out there playing. He’s excited to learn new skills. He’s a big fan.”
Over in the Boni-Vital region, Rally Cap Program convener Mike Krykewich has about 13 teams and 90 little Larry Walkers registered for the season, which started in early May. The squads will hit the diamond twice a week until June 30.
“I think a lot of the parents have experienced baseball through their lives, but many don’t realize there’s a program like this,” Krykewich said. “When the program came out, I think a lot of parents got excited about it.
“My son is an example,” he said of Alexander, age 6. “They (the kids) get pretty excited. It’s very fun-oriented. There’s no real stress to the game. They hit, they run, and you teach them how to catch and hold a bat properly and just have fun without having too much instruction. If they first enjoy the game, we can have instruction afterwards.”
Winter makes baseball seasons short-lived in Manitoba, so Krykewich says the program is doubly important.
“I think especially in our province, being quite seasonal, we don’t have a lot of baseball opportunities,” he explained. “I think these grassroots programs provide us with a kick-start to get some kids involved. I think it’s increasing participation because it gives the kids an opportunity at the real young level to experience baseball.”
With childhood obesity rates soaring and Louisville Sluggers often replaced by PlayStation controllers, it’s more important than ever to engage young athletes at the grassroots level. By encouraging active participation, skill development and fun at an early age, the Rally Cap Program is a great way to raise healthy, skilled athletes who’ll be players or fans for life. And if we produce a few more Corey Koskies in the process, so much the better.
Either way, Rally Cap is now an important part of baseball in Manitoba.
“I would encourage (other parents) to get involved in the rally cap program or any baseball program that’s out there,” Collier said. “I think just getting out there and playing baseball and keeping the sport alive in Manitoba is important.
“If Rally Cap is something that they’re interested in, by all means they should get involved, because my son and the other kids that have been involved have enjoyed it very much.”