Park City students catch baseball fever
Baseball is a sport on the rise in Park City, as enrollment in youth programs grows and the Park City High School program has blossomed into a 3A contender on a yearly basis.
Still, though, it has been difficult to recruit new players to the sport in a town with so many other outdoor recreation options. To accelerate the growth of baseball up here in Park City, the Skullcandy Crushers baseball organization looked to the land down under for answers.
Kevin Johnson, a coach with the Skullcandy organization and The Turf in Park City, recently returned to the United States after spending more than 20 years in Australia. Johnson, who was born in Honolulu and raised in Burbank, California, worked with all levels of Australian baseball players — from elementary school students to MLB hopefuls. When he relocated to Park City six months ago, he saw an opportunity to introduce more local children to the sport.
"It all started from my experience in 20 years of Australian baseball where, as a development officer, our main job was to go to the schools," he said. "Every sport had development officers and they would go and run introductory clinics to the kids anywhere from [preschool], kindergarten, to about year six. The idea would be throwing, catching, batting, base running — different activities like that. We usually gave out some baseball cards as well, or something that related to baseball."
Immediately after hearing Johnson’s idea, The Turf and Skullcandy jumped on board.
"In the history of the Crushers, now in our third spring, we’ve always done financial hardship cases where we’ve sponsored kids who’ve come along and made a case for that," said Brent Milner, the director of Skullcandy baseball. "We’ve always wanted to do a much broader community outreach program, but never had the concept. When we were fortunate enough to hire Kevin, he had some fantastic ideas for teaching the game at the youth level. That was our ‘Aha!’ moment where we said this is what we needed to do within the elementary schools here in Park City."
The program started at McPolin Elementary School, then quickly spread to Jeremy Ranch, Trailside and Parley’s Park. Johnson said the clinics, which started last fall, are meant to be fun and inclusive.
"We had a Golden Arm Challenge where we had a radar gun and we’d say, ‘OK, this is how many miles per hour you can throw,’" he said. "We had a game, too, to not only get the fastest throwers, but also who could guess how fast they were throwing — like the old carnival game. Then they’d run from home to home. We also had some batting off the Zooka machine, which is a pitching machine that used foam balls."
The great thing about the games Johnson designs for the kids, Milner said, is that they’re able to be played anywhere.
"I think the unique thing he does is he has baseball-oriented games that aren’t necessarily requiring a diamond or a batting cage," he said. "He’ll go in and do a speed-gun test and give them a card with their score on it so they know how hard they can throw, he’ll do pop-fly drills, base running drills and a hitting competition."
Johnson said the program was an immediate success with kids and teachers alike.
"They love it — they absolutely love it," he said. "They like the challenge of seeing if they can out-throw their mates and seeing how fast they can run the bases and how hard they can hit. They get very competitive. At the same time, it doesn’t matter what level they are, they like the excitement of doing something new.
"Teacher response has been pretty awesome, too. The kids are engaged and they’re excited. They’re wound up when they get done with us and have to go to class, though, so they probably have to settle them down a little bit."
Chip Cook, a P.E. teacher at Jeremy Ranch, said she appreciated the fact that students of all levels were able to have success at the clinics.
"I thought it was great," she said. "All the equipment was user-friendly and we didn’t need mitts or anything. A few of [the students] were a little worried because they’d never played baseball, but it quickly became an all-inclusive, all-skill-level thing that they could all be successful at."
Plus, at the end of each session, a surprise is in store for the participants.
"As a bonus, Skullcandy was generous enough to give earbuds to everyone at the school," Cook said. "They loved that. All in all, I think it was a very valuable, enjoyable experience. We’re going to do it again with them later in the spring. I know the kids are going to be excited to do that again."
There are plans in the works to expand the program to include a more educational aspect, Johnson said.
"Parley’s principal liked the idea of maths in sport," he said. "I started talking about what we do with bat speed and launch angle determining the distance of a hit. Kids should know about maths in sport. We do batting average, earned run average — we do a lot of maths. We’re going to get Parley’s to actually bus kids in here so they can be at The Turf with the HitTrax [machine] and we can show them the maths on every swing — there are several components of every swing — and why it’s important in sports."
Another potential expansion of the program involves an inter-school tournament, Johnson added.
"We want to play games with the kids representing their school playing either a regular or modified game of baseball," he said. "That’s our goal — to get inter-school competition for kids who don’t play baseball so they get a sense of what baseball’s like."
The program’s ultimate goal, of course, is to increase youth involvement in baseball, Johnson said. But, he added, it’s also about creating more well-rounded, physically active students.
"Play a lot of sports — that’s always what I say to every kid," he said. "Play them all and see what you like. If you play them all, you’ll be a more well-rounded, more coordinated and a better athlete in the long run."
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Chase Campbell, a Park City High School sophomore, has a busy summer schedule, including the USA Cycling Mountain Bike National Championships on July 22-23.