For many years now, the crack of a wooden bat slapping a baseball has been largely absent from our ballfields and backyards, replaced by the soulless ping of aluminum. But this weekend, on dozens of diamonds around Northern Virginia, the blessed crack is back, in an all-wood bat youth baseball tournament that is on track to raise a half-million dollars for pediatric cancer research.
The Washington Nationals Memorial Day Tournament was started last year by longtime Centreville baseball coach Rob Hahne and honors his 7-year-old son Kyle, who has leukemia. It had 24 teams and raised about $12,000 through Hahne’s newly formed foundation, Kyle’s Kamp.
“This year, we decided to try to take a big shot upward,” Hahne said, and boy, did they ever: The tournament has 160 teams, with roughly 2,000 kids (and four adult teams), playing at 33 different fields in our area, including three games Friday at Nationals Park for the six teams who raised the most money. Hahne said the Nats were glad to help sponsor the tournament in its second year, donating tickets, souvenirs and the use of their stadium for opening ceremonies and the three games.
None of the youngsters I spoke with Saturday had ever used a wood bat before. Because they break, and are more expensive to make, wood was phased out in favor of aluminum at most levels in the late 1970s, though pro leagues have stuck with wood.
“We wanted to go old-school,” Hahne said, “do something different. The kids can’t hit as well, but they love that it’s different.”
At Fred Crabtree Park outside Reston, travel teams of 9- and 10-year-olds were not exactly lashing the ball to all fields, but the sweet spot is still there on a Louisville Slugger, a Rawlings or a Mizuno, and some hits went fairly deep.
“It weighs more,” said Andrew Whitaker, 10, of South Riding’s Loudoun South Eagles. “It stung more. But I hit one over the outfielder’s head.”
Matt Walker, 9, also of South Riding, had the distinct honor of actually breaking a bat, even with a taped handle. He provided a full recounting of the play with detail worthy of Vin Scully — “A pitch on the outer half,” “roller to second base,” “I beat it out” — and showed where on the bat the ball had hit. They call that “the label.” I guess they don’t teach you about turning the label away from the pitcher when you use aluminum.
“I think it’s pretty cool,” Walker said of his first wood experience. “All my favorite players in the major leagues use wooden bats,” and he smoothly rattled off Dustin Pedroia, Jacoby Ellsbury and David Ortiz, just like Vin Scully would.
As part of the teams’ registration fees, they were given five wood bats and could bring their own as well, Hahne said. Each team, and each player, has a Web page where they line up pledges for playing in the tournament. The teams leading the fundraising as of Saturday were the NVTBL Stars 13U, the Virginia Renegades 15U, the Virginia Spartans Orange and Blue, the NoVa Yankees 13U, the Potomac Riverdogs 12U and 13U, and the Haymarket Brigade 14U, which had all raised more than $19,000 apiece.
In addition to teams from Virginia, Maryland and D.C., teams came in from New Jersey, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia, Hahne said. The money they raise will go to the Center for Cancer and Blood Disorders at Children’s National Medical Center.
“We hope to expand to other major league cities in the future,” Hahne said. Hahne is a well-known baseball figure in Northern Virginia, having not only coached players from Little League to college age, but also run certification clinics for more than 5,000 coaches.
Hahne had hoped to raise $250,000 with this year’s tournament. But before it even began, pledges had topped $400,000, and on Friday Hahne said it looked as though the total would clear $500,000.
The tournament began Thursday with games all over Fairfax County, at every age level from 8 to 16 plus a four-team adult bracket, and will conclude Monday. Each game begins with a moment of silence for pediatric cancer patients and then, on Memorial Day, the Pledge of Allegiance for fallen soldiers. The tournament winners will be recognized at Nationals Park before the Nats’ game on June 2.
For more information on how you can donate, go to the Kyle’s Kamp Web site.