When I last wrote about , the fields were covered by a blanket of snow measurable in feet, and it seemed impossible to imagine that spring sports would be played this year.
Saturday was blustery and raw, but the fields were clear and (relatively) dry, and the smiles were contagious on coaches and players alike. In two separate sessions, approximately 100 kids ages five through seven attended a group practice session at which kicked off opening day for the training division.
The training division is run by Vice President Robert Paolitto, a 26-year veteran of the West Hartford Youth Baseball League. Paolitto is the second generation of his family to manage the West Hartford Exchange team in the major league division, and this year he is also coaching his son Nick, who will be playing for the Rizzuto’s Wood-Fire Kitchen & Bar Rockies training division team.
Paolitto’s love of the game shone through as he addressed the crowd of kids and parents before sending the kids out to stations for hitting, base running, fielding, and throwing.
“Opening day is going very well,” Paolitto told me. The kids had already been assigned teams, but since many of them were brand new to baseball, the objective of the group practice was to give them some simple techniques and fundamentals. “Today’s goals were to give an introduction to baseball, athleticism and sportsmanship. We also reviewed the very important fundamentals of how to throw correctly, how to grip the bat, and how to get into proper position for each task,” Paolitto said.
Paolitto was assisted on Saturday afternoon by a number of talented veteran coaches, including Elliot Lane, Brian Samela, and Glynn Baron.
The training division has recently expanded to include five-year-olds, as well as six and seven-year-olds. Play is coach pitch, using a safe, soft baseball. There are close to 140 boys and girls registered this year, and they have been placed on 10 sponsored teams. Every team also has a Major League Baseball team name, and the players were thrilled to receive authentic MLB hats as part of their uniforms.
West Hartford Youth Baseball recently affiliated with Cal Ripken Baseball, a division of Babe Ruth Baseball. One of the major results of that affiliation is that the league’s coaches have now earned their American Sport Education Program (ASEP) certification through Babe Ruth. According to Paolitto, “ASEP is the leading provider of youth, high school, and elite-level sport education programs in the United States. ASEP is rooted in the philosophy of ‘Athletes first, winning second.’”
Many of the other changes – like pitch count limitations – affect only the older players, but the Cal Ripken affiliation has also created some opportunities for the younger kids. “There’s an 8U tournament this summer that these kids are now eligible to play in because of the Ripken affiliation,” said Paolitto.
The kids didn’t seem to mind the cold wind as they moved from station to station, listening intently and excited to be out on the field. Brendan Grady stood with the other parents who were shivering on the sidelines, but his son Brendan was so excited about this day that he wouldn’t even wear a sweatshirt. All the parents seemed glad to have their kids running around, getting some exercise, and being introduced to baseball in a positive environment.
Paolitto was pleased to see so much family support. “I loved seeing the parents playing with the kids before and after the practice. We want to encourage kids to play more – have a catch and make it fun – just like we did in our youth.”