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Building a Base for Ballplayers

By David Nakamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, February 16, 2005; Page B01

District resident Harry Thomas Jr. had a problem when he wanted to enter his son in Major League Baseball's youth skills competition two years ago. No one in the city was willing to organize the event, known as Pitch, Hit and Run.

So Thomas sent his son across the border to Takoma Park.

"Call me crazy, but I thought, 'Why not have a Pitch, Hit and Run here in D.C.?' " said Thomas, who runs a youth baseball program called D.C. First Swing.

With the arrival of the Washington Nationals, Thomas and other youth coaches in the District believe they have a chance to capture the momentum in a way that spreads interest in the game to the city's youth.

Backed by the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation and Major League Baseball, their goal is to have 10 Pitch, Hit and Run competitions in the city in April, with the hope that hundreds of children will participate. The prize, after several levels of competition, will be a chance to compete at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium in June, where top area performers will earn a trip to a national competition during festivities at the Major League All-Star Game in Detroit in July.

"We're expanding our grass-roots efforts there, trying to set up more of these local competitions," said Matt Hilley of LEJ Sports, an Atlanta consultant company that operates the skills competition for Major League Baseball. "We want to impact more D.C. youngsters and give them an opportunity."

Building a base of support in the District could be important for baseball and the Nationals. The team's arrival in the city was met with mixed reviews. Many residents complained that city leaders were investing too much money and effort in building a stadium for the team and not enough in such critical areas as schools and health care.

Baseball officials have promised $100,000 to help renovate the Fort Greble Recreation Center in Ward 8, and the D.C. Sports and Entertainment Commission has said it will help renovate ballfields across the city.

Pitch, Hit and Run is designed to spread interest in the game by giving children ages 7 through 14 a chance to compete, free, in a test of baseball skills. Any community organization can host one of the events by contacting Major League Baseball, which will provide a rule book and medals for the initial round of competition. Across the country, about 500,000 children participated last year, Hilley said.

In the District, Thomas and other coaches said, youth interest in baseball is not as strong as it is in the suburbs. Insufficient playing fields and equipment are part of the problem, they said. Also, kids are more interested in other sports, and many parents are not familiar with baseball, the coaches said.

Gerard Hall, who coaches in the D.C. Babe Ruth League, also is trying to get Pitch, Hit and Run started in the city. He said he has six commitments so far from community organizations to host the competitions.

One challenge, Hall said, is trying to get 40 children, the minimum for each competition, to show up.

Many young people in the District "don't watch it on TV," Hall said. "Here you have high school basketball and the University of Maryland and pro sports."

Terry Lee, a spokesman for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, said the city has committed to providing fields and community centers to any effort to promote baseball among youth, including the skills competition.

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) has "made it clear to us that we need to do everything we can to make baseball a success here," Lee said. "We are committed more so than in the past at looking at ways to integrate people to baseball."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company