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First Base Is That Way: Teaching Tykes to Play Together : T-Ball Offers 4- and 5-Year Olds Confidence, Coordination, Caps and Chance to Imitate Tony Gwynn

June 24, 1989|KIM Q. BERKSHIRE

CHULA VISTA — Imagine the mortified look on Padre Manager Jack McKeon's face if first baseman Jack Clark were to shove the ball into the stomach of an onrushing baserunner, like a quarterback handing off to a fullback.

Or how would he react if Benito Santiago were to approach him with tears in his eyes because Roberto Alomar had borrowed his catcher's mitt without asking?

During a recent T-Ball practice for the 4- and 5-year-old Bonita Barons at Rohr Park, Coach Dan Way had to contend with these problems and more.

"Don't give him the ball, tag him with it," Way said to one player near the end of what had become a long first day of orientation and practice.

Tyke T-Ball is the brainchild of Luis Provencio, Chula Vista Young Men's Christian Assn. program director, who wanted to sponsor a summer program to complement the YMCA's soccer and basketball programs for children under 5.

"We were looking for something low-key for both boys and girls," Provencio said. "Summer is the time kids are out and all involved. With the pros playing in the summer, we thought it would be a good idea."

The Barons' proud parents--mostly mothers, although one father was present--sat in lawn chairs and offered encouragement to their children.

Karen Rasmussen and her husband Dennis--no relation to the Padre pitcher--decided to give their son, Kevin, 5, the chance to play because he had expressed interest.

"When they show an interest," Rasmussen said, "that's when you get them into it. Kids like to do what their role models are doing. At this age, their role models are their older brothers and sisters, and Kevin's big brother plays baseball."

The coach's son, Ryan Way, 4 1/2, watched and learned from his older brother, Daniel, 11, who plays on the Bonita Barons' minor league division Little League team.

"Ryan is a bat boy for his brother's team," his mother, Suzanne Way, said. "He even hits (during practices)."

Somehow, Ryan found a brochure on the T-Ball program, held onto it and badgered his parents into joining.

"How could we say no?" Suzanne Way said. "He had kept the brochure for a year."

Other parents enrolled their children to gain skills and confidence, and to interact.

"Basically, it's a learning thing and a way to make friends," said Becky Chait, whose twin sons, Gabriel and Ariel, 3 1/2, are playing for the first time. "At this age, a lot of what they'll learn is hand-eye coordination. I don't have any expectations. If they learn to throw, that would be great."

If any parents have lofty ambitions for their sons' futures in baseball, they are keeping them quiet.

"No, I'm not interested in raising a pro ballplayer," Rasmussen said.

Said Chait: "Their father's been playing (baseball) with them since they could stand. It's just a dream for him to watch them play."

Although some of the players have been to Padre games--Tony Gwynn was the overwhelming choice as favorite player--most have yet to register "complete games" as spectators.

"After the first inning, they lose interest," Chait said. "Then they just eat hot dogs the rest of the game."

Although most players are new, one returning player is Nicholas Raue, 5. Roz and John Raue enrolled their son in T-Ball last year, and Roz said that the self-confidence and sense of team spirit Nicholas gained was reason enough to send him back.

"He really learned few skills," Raue said. "The baseball is secondary. He learned about getting along with the team and positive reinforcement. And getting a trophy at the end of the season, that all goes back to the confidence factor."

Raue said last year her husband pushed Nicholas too hard--"John's priority was definitely sports," she said--but he has since mellowed and is now able to enjoy T-Ball with his son.

"John has relaxed," Raue said. "Now, he waits for Nicolas to ask him for help."

In addition to learning social skills, there are physical benefits to T-Ball as well. Dan Way said he will implement stretching and running into the program.

Said Rasmussen: "They have to get along with 10 other kids. The benefits are mental, emotional and physical. They keep saying that American kids aren't fit. If you get them into something like this, it's more fun and it does a good job of getting them fit. You're not going to be able to get a 5-year-old to do exercises in the home."

And it's a starting place to learn the fundamentals of America's favorite game. Raue said it took Nicholas six or seven games last year to get a grasp of the fundamentals, but Way is optimistic.

"I don't know how much they'll learn other than baserunning, throwing to first, how to stand at the plate, how to hold the bat and how to make an out," he said. "It's hard to tell. Their attention span is short, I just need to find out what works. It all depends on the boys."

Five years ago, the tyke T-Ball program started with 48 kids. Now it has grown to its current enrollment of 200 spread over 16 teams with 12 or 13 players on each. It is the most popular of the YMCA's baseball leagues.

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