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Youth Movement

Like their big-league counterparts, the Memphis Redbirds are wooing the kids.

by Mark Bialek

ow, what a weekend! I felt like a kid again. I didn’t know I was still capable of those feelings, but after spending the weekend in St. Louis following the Cardinals-Cubs series, I remembered why I had such a passion for the game of baseball in my youth.

How could it get any better? I got to see Mark McGwire and Slammin’ Sammy Sosa hit home runs in the same game on Saturday, and I got to see perhaps the best game of the year in the majors this season, a see-saw, dramatic, 13 inning, 9-8 Cardinals victory along with 47,000 other crazed Cardinals and Cubs fans. The game featured a game-tying home run by Sosa in the ninth inning followed by game-tying homers by Ray Lankford and former Memphis Redbird Eli Marrero in extra innings before the Cardinals finally prevailed. Do I sound excited? I was. It was the best baseball game I’d seen in years.

My friend and I didn’t arrive in St. Louis until halfway through Friday night’s game. I’m glad. As a Cubs fan, I didn’t need to see the 16-3 thrashing the Cards would put on the Cubs that night. After the game though, we were scheduled to meet some friends and fellow Memphians outside the International Bowling Museum across the street from Busch Stadium. What was the first thing I saw while walking toward the museum? It was none other than Cubs leftfielder Henry Rodriguez walking down the street by himself in street clothes. It took only an instant for groups of kids who were still hanging around the ballpark to spot him. The good news is, the autograph session was underway. Rodriguez took the time to talk to the youngsters and sign all the autographs. It was refreshing. Nobody told Rodriguez he had to do it, and nobody was paying him to do it. He just did it.

It looks like the words “fan friendly” are returning to the game of baseball, and not a moment too soon. Baseball may finally be re-assuming it’s role as our “national past time,” and the unscheduled autograph session by Rodriguez is one example of how these icons can recapture our youth to a game which had lost it’s interest for them over the past decade.

I’m the perfect example of a person who grew up eating, sleeping, and breathing baseball only in recent years to see football replace it as my favorite sport. When I wasn’t playing organized ball in little league and beyond, I was playing “unorganized ball.” My friend and I would set up a board with a strike zone painted on it against the garage door. Both of us would pick a major league team, we would write down our starting lineups, and we would play. The pitcher pitched from the end of the driveway. Outs were recorded by virtue of a strikeout, ground ball, or pop-fly that the pitcher could catch. A ball hit to the street on the fly was a single. Over the street on the fly was a double. Off the house across the street was a triple. On top of or over the house across the street was a home run. Don’t worry neighbors! We used a racquet ball.

Baseball didn’t end after dark either. It just moved indoors. We put a baseball game on television, and played Status Pro baseball while watching it. That’s right, a “box” game. I was the manager of every team in the national league, and I would announce the games as I played them. How do you think I became such a “natural” at baseball play-by-play? My friend did the same thing with the American League. At the end of the season, my champion would meet his champion in the World Series. By the way, the Cubs never won the World Series in Status Pro either.

My point is that I just haven’t seen the same type of crazy dedication to the game amongst today’s youth that I once had. My own sports interests have even changed, too. While I now have to know everything that happened in every National Football League game, I’m only a casual baseball fan. I follow the Cubs, and that’s about it. How did that happen? Big money, strikes, and idiot athletes seemed to devastate the game of baseball faster than it did the other major sports, and the game just now appears to be regaining the momentum that it once had.

Today’s baseball stars are finally good guys once again. Take McGwire and Sosa. McGwire has handled the pressure of the home run chase like a champ. He doesn’t put his foot in his mouth, and his professionalism and good nature has made him a hero to young Cardinals fans in St. Louis and young baseball fans all across the country. As for Sosa, he is the classic version of the poor Dominican kid with great natural tools. He was discovered and signed by a scout at the age of 16, and after many years struggling to learn the game while his big-league career progressed, he has become one of the biggest stars in the game at the age of 29. Sosa also donates $500,000 a year to charities, and he’s become the biggest star in the Windy City outside of Michael Jordan. McGwire and Sosa don’t get busted for drugs, they don’t get caught up in sex scandals, and they take time to show their appreciation for those who make them the celebrities they are.

Everybody hears about the major leaguers, but this born-again interest in fans, especially young fans, is spreading right down through the minor leagues. Here in Memphis, the Redbirds are making an all out effort to re-kindle baseball fever amongst mid-South kids. The leader of the youth movement is Redbirds Director of Community Relations, Reggie Williams, a former major leaguer. “Baseball is about kids and I think the players have realized that,” Williams says. “I think that’s been part of the resurgence of baseball.”

Williams, a former Dodger who prepped at South Side High School, admits that major leaguers may have lost sight of the importance of fans for awhile. “I think that there was a time in the not too distant past that the game had gotten too big for it’s own good,” Williams says. “Players forgot about other important elements like signing autographs, taking pictures, visiting sick members of the community, or speaking at a school. But I think it’s come full circle, and players appreciate the fans once again.”

Since joining the Redbirds staff from Ridgeway High School where he served as Principal, Williams has led a conscious Redbirds effort to get the youth in the Memphis area much more involved in the game of baseball. “I think it makes good sense to start your market young and grow them up at the ballpark.” Williams says. “Certainly, we want to have long term fans, and why not start with the youth.”

Williams has helped the Redbirds implement many programs which involve the younger sector of the community, including a recent two-day mini-camp during which Redbirds players taught children the fundamentals of the game. Eleven Redbirds participated in the mini-camp, and 45-50 kids learned the finer points of hitting, base running, infield and outfield play, and catching. The children ranged from ages 10 to 16.

Two of the Redbirds’ player/instructors were infielder Brian Rupp and outfielder Joe McEwing. McEwing, a 25-year-old outfielder who has been a godsend to the Redbirds since being recalled from Double-A Arkansas, seems sincerely happy to participate in camps of this nature. “It’s nice to be able to give back what you’ve been blessed with your whole life,” he said. “Anytime that you can lend a hand or try to steer somebody the right way in playing the game of baseball, it’s always a great opportunity.” Rupp, 26, echoed the same sentiments, and he emphasized the most important part of the game to the young participants. “You want to have fun,” Rupp says. “That’s the most important thing when you play. If you’re not having any fun, than it serves no purpose to go out there. It’s just a game.”

Both McEwing and Rupp appear genuinely appreciative of the Memphis baseball fan. “I try to take time out every day to sign autographs because when I was a little kid I was the same person standing there wanting somebody else’s autograph,” McEwing says. “I don’t like to forget where I came from.”

Rupp says the Redbirds youthful following has been among the best in the Pacific Coast League. “Memphis has been great,” he says. “It’s been first class all the way. Especially the kids. There’s tons of kids at the park every night, and they’re having a good time, and that’s what it’s all about.”

So get out the big, flat piece of wood, draw a strike zone, and let’s play ball! Baseball is back … and the Redbirds are back in the playoff hunt. At the Triple-A level I’m comfortable saying: Go Redbirds! But at the big-league level: Go Cubs!

Hey, there’s something to be said for loyalty, and you have to be loyal to be a Cubs fan.

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