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Schenectady baseball camp aims to revive dwindling pastime

Schenectady baseball camp aims to revive dwindling pastime

Skills camp ignites love of the game for youngsters
Schenectady baseball camp aims to revive dwindling pastime
Cole Trumble, 6, of Schenectady makes a bunt at the Oldtimers Baseball Camp in Central Park Tuesday.
Photographer: PETER R. BARBER/GAZETTE PHOTOGRAPHER

SCHENECTADY — A cluster of turbocharged youngsters waited for their turn at bat.

Kaidon Joyce, 8, said he hit two home runs already, and was chomping at the bit for more.

Joyce was one of the 36 youngsters who flocked to Central Park’s A-Field as part of a free two-day skills camp organized by the Schenectady Old Timers Baseball Club (SOTBC) this week, a group of local baseball boosters with big ambitions to revitalize interest in the sport.

“It’s all about developing the kids,” said Frank Pizzo, a volunteer coach. “We’re having fun while also teaching the basics.”

Pizzo was stationed at one of five stations set up to teach youngsters the basics, from infield and outfield skills to to pitching and hitting. 

Kids were at the tail-end of a game of rag ball, or when the bases are inverted to shorten the field, making it easier to knock a ball out of the park. 

“The goal is to hit as many home runs as possible,” Pizzo said.

A pint-sized player clad in an oversized red T-shirt popped one over the fence. 

“Just like that,” Pizzo said.

LOVE OF THE GAME

The once-hallowed pastime has largely eroded in Schenectady, which was once a hotbed of baseball culture, winning the 1954 League League series, supporting a Major League Baseball minor league affiliate for 12 years following World War II and churning out an impressive roster of talent who excelled at all levels.

Camp manager Alex Jurcyznski, an assistant baseball coach at Princeton University, said the number of Little Leagues operating in the city have been whittled down from a handful in its heyday to just one. 

He couldn’t pinpoint the reasons, but said increasing costs and the recent emergence of travel baseball leagues have emerged as potential culprits.

But other sports, too, have also receded, he noted, nodding toward the unused tennis court once home to the New York Buzz, a professional tennis team competing in World TeamTennis, which left after the 2013 when sold to a San Diego businessman.

The leading goal of the baseball camp, which concluded Tuesday, is to rekindle that the sport's culture, introducing a love of the game for youngsters who were previously unexposed to hardball, whether due to financial hurdles or other reasons.

“Hopefully this will spark some interest in some kids,”Jurcyznski said. “We’re trying to build baseball back in the community.”

A leading goal is keeping energy levels high, he said.

All costs, labor, materials and equipment were provided by corporate and private sponsors.

That support is critical, said Jurcyznski, who estimated costs at a comparable camp would cost about $400 per camper.

Should participants want to join Little League, the old-timers will also subside costs for the season, which clocks in at $175 per youngster annually.

“For some people, it’s a choice between rent or a baseball bat,” Jurcyznski said.

About 35 kids attended on Monday. While fewer than what organizers hoped, the winnowed-down field led to a nearly 1-to-1 ratio between players and coaches, which included college coaches and players, high school athletes and “former Schenectady baseball standouts,” according to SOTBC president Don Blaha.

“They’re getting individual instruction,” Blaha said. 

FAMILY AFFAIR

Jurcyznski has been working alongside the old-timers for about a month to marshal their resources. 

“It’s been an awesome time giving back,” said Anthony Spataro, assistant coach at Siena College. “When [Jurcyznski] asked, it was something I couldn’t pass up.”

He called the players “super-coachable and full of questions.” 

For some, it’s a family affair: Jordan Bernacet coached with his brother, Jacob. 

And their sister, Jada, is a camp participant.

“Just seeing them at this age reminds me of what I was doing at this age,” said Jordan, 22, who graduated from Schenectady High and played for Dominican College. He also helps with the Schenectady Blue Jays.

Their father, Wil Bernacet, serves as president of Schenectady Babe Ruth League.

Jurcyznski hopes interaction with top-talent will light a lifelong love in the youngsters.

He remembers when Casper Wells, a Schenectady High baseball star who went on to play in the major leagues, stopped by a practice to give him pointers, which ended up being a formative experience.

“I still remember that to this day,” Jurcyznski said.

HAPPY KIDS

By mid-afternoon, the camp was winding down and players preparing to pack it in. They were sent off with personalized baseball cards containing photos of them at-bat, swag bags, tickets to Wednesday’s Tri-City Valley Cats game and bellies full of ice cream.

John and Billee Graham, of Schenectady, waited for their two grandsons to emerge from the scrum. 

“One was excited and the other was nervous because he never played before,” Billee said. “It was a new experience for them.”

But they said they received a positive midday progress from both.

The Grahams praised the camp and the organizers.

“Their mom is a single parent and doesn’t have a lot of time to do sports with them,” Billee said.

Volunteer Dawn Vavala recounted a conversation with an effusive parent who told her her son couldn’t sleep the night before. 

“It was like Christmas morning,” Vavala recalled. “It brings tears to my eyes.”

“And that,” said organizer Don Blaha, “is what this is all about.”

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