From Little League to the major leagues

By Greg Lindberg

August 23, 2010

New Roots News

The cracking sounds of bats striking baseballs emanate throughout the ballpark. Kids shout and laugh with excitement as they play their favorite game.

But this is not a Little League park. This is Tropicana Field.

The Tampa Bay Rays are the only Major League Baseball club to offer summer camps for kids on the same playing field as its major leaguers. Youngsters between the ages of 6 and 13 compete in these unique week-long camps, and in an air-conditioned environment. Several camps are also offered for teens and more experienced players.

Bill Mathews, the head baseball coach at Eckerd College since 1990, has headed up the camps for the past 10 years. Mathews hires all the coaches and sets up the schedules for each day. There are 12 coaches working the camp the week of July 26, most of whom Mathews knows personally.

Mathews, in his 34th year of coaching, talks about his passion for teaching kids and making a positive impression on the field.

“It’s fun for me because I like to teach the game,” he says. “The abilities of the players doesn’t really matter. It’s just how receptive they are to the information.”

He elaborates on the differences between coaching at the college level and coaching younger kids.

“It’s more fun teaching the little guys,” he admits. “You see their eyes light up, you see them get excited. So it’s rewarding in that sense.”

From 9 a.m. to noon, campers rotate through 10 stations with different activities at each stop. From Monday through Thursday, they do 90 minutes of offensive work by hitting off tees, bunting and taking batting practice. The other 90 minutes are for defensive drills, such as fielding balls in the outfield.

About 130 campers attend each week, and several participate in multiple camps. Although most of the campers are boys, there are a few girls who try to outperform their gender counterparts.

“The girls that come out take it pretty seriously and are the harder workers,” says Kyle Smithey, a marketing intern for the Rays who helps daily with the camps.

In efforts to make the camp as realistic as possible, campers get to go in the dugout, use the batting cages, and their names even appear on the Jumbotron.

“Being able to go down and get a drink of water like Carl Crawford does, using the same bathroom that Evan Longoria does – it’s things like that these kids really like,” Smithey adds.

Every Friday the kids take part in a skills competition – a contest in which they receive points based on their performance during certain drills. On Fri., July 30, the last day of this week’s camp, Max Freed, 6, places third in his group in the competition.

“It was great,” he says of the experience, noting that hitting is his favorite part. Freed’s preferred position is third base, which is fitting, seeing as it’s the same position of his favorite player – Rays third baseman, Evan Longoria.

Max's mom, Julie Freed, heard about the camp from his Little League baseball team. Every day she made the drive from Lakewood Ranch to watch Max play.

“He loved it,” she says.

And what did Max receive for earning third place? A Carlos Peña toothbrush holder.

Jeremiah Tucker, a 7-year-old camper from Oldsmar, says he likes batting on the same field as the pros.

“It felt like the major leagues,” he says. His favorite player is Rays center fielder B.J. Upton.

Adele Tucker says her son loved the camp.

“He enjoyed it immensely,” she says. “He asked to go last summer and we weren’t able to do it, so we promised him this year that he’d be able to come.”

Each week a special guest talks to the kids and signs autographs for them. On this particular day, Rays outfielder Matt Joyce takes the time to make an appearance.

“The most important thing is the time that you have to put in, the sacrifices that you have to make to accomplish your goals,” Joyce tells the campers. “Don’t ever ask yourself, ‘What if?’ Just go out there every day and enjoy it, and put all your effort into whatever you love.”

Joyce, who has hit several key home runs for his team this season, says that growing up he idolized former Devil Rays first baseman Fred McGriff.

According to team officials, participation in the camps has increased since Tampa Bay’s run to the 2008 World Series. The camps began during the team’s inaugural season in 1998, and they typically drew between 75 to 90 kids; now they draw about 115 to 130.

Coach Mathews describes the gratifying results from being involved with such positive activities, as well as the greater goals of those involved in the camps.

“The most rewarding part is being able to make a difference in a kid’s life,” he says. “And making the kids realize that hard work pays off, that being part of a team is much more important than being an individual.” _