Mylec Payne, 7, took a mighty swing with his bat and hit the ball so hard the T-ball stand tipped over.
“Way to go,” cheered Thomas Myers, a Runnels High School baseball player who was showing Payne and several dozen other area children how to correctly swing a baseball bat at the Howell Park field Sunday afternoon.
Payne and Myers were just two of nearly 1,000 area children, athletes and volunteers who teamed up for Operation First Base, a free, parishwide baseball clinic held at six BREC parks and at Istrouma Baptist Church’s two fields.
The event had several purposes, said M.L. Woodruff, legendary former Parkview Baptist School baseball coach and now Sports Outreach director for Istrouma Baptist.
One purpose was to provide the children, ages 6-14, an introduction to baseball that is not available to many of them. They also wanted to provide an athletic outlet for kids other than what is now available to them on the streets.
“We want to use the sport of baseball to present the gospel of Jesus Christ,” Woodruff said. “We’re playing baseball in areas of Baton Rouge that don’t have baseball anymore. Baseball has become an elite sport, and many kids just can’t afford it.”
All the children, estimated at several hundred, received an afternoon of instruction on a pleasant sunny day and a free lunch of hot dogs, chips and cookies. The children received free baseball gloves and bats and many also received helmets.
The event was held in cooperation with BREC, Woodruff said, along with the East Baton Rouge Parish Sheriff’s Office’s Baton Rouge Area Violence Elimination project and the District Attorney’s Office.
Dozens of players from LSU Eunice, St. Michaels High School, Parkview Baptist, Scotlandville High, Runnels High, Central High, University Lab, Dunham High, Baton Rouge Community College, Dutchtown High School girl’s softball and East Ascension softball volunteered their skills as coaches.
At each park, the children were divided into age groups and then rotated around mini-camps of throwing, hitting, running and catching taught by the players.
Kelvin Mills brought his son Joshua Parker, 10, to the Howell Park session to get him interested in baseball as well as football.
“It takes us a long ways closer together,” Mills said when asked about what events like this do for their relationship.
Richard Bentley Smith, a BREC program coordinator, said the parish’s parks and recreation department provided an artificial pitching mound at each site so the kids could get a true feeling of pitching off a mound.
“Our goal working with Istrouma Baptist Church is to reintroduce baseball to the inner-city and the local kids who just cannot afford to pay to go to these tournaments that take place in Florida or Texas or throughout the state of Louisiana and to reintroduce baseball to the Baton Rouge area,” Smith said.
The department plans to use this as a springboard for future baseball endeavors such as a league across the BREC system, he said.
Operation First Base, Smith also said, “plays into BREC’s efforts to push a crime-prevention initiative, working with the BRAVE program and the SCAT program in order to get (children) off the streets and get them doing something athletic — and also fight childhood obesity and the ‘couch-potato mentality.’”
At the Anna T. Jordan Park, Scotlandville High pitcher Richard Stills said he was participating because “we want to give back to the community. People say ‘idle time is the devil’s workshop,’ so I’d rather see the kids on the baseball field than just hanging out on the street.”
Dervincent Hamilton, Scotlandville catcher, said, “You can make money at it if you’re really good.”
Nancy Ensminger, girl’s softball coach at Dutchtown High School, brought her team because “we just like to give back to the community. Not only do these kids get a lot out of it, but my girls get a lot out of it, too.”
Dutchtown player Tia Patterson, senior shortstop, said, “We want to touch a child’s heart and make them feel better about themselves. We want to put a smile on their faces.”
Clinics were held at Ben Berge Park for Gardere Lane area, Alaska Street Park for the McKinley area, Istrouma Baptist Church fields for Cedarcrest area, Saia Park for Mall City area, Howell Park for Istrouma-Brookstown area, Maplewood Park for Glen Oaks area, and Anna T. Jordan Park for Scotlandville.