Forty excited fourth graders at John Adams Elementary School in Alexandria, Va., are crowding around a stuffed duffel bag on the school baseball diamond, grabbing gloves and learning to wear them. “This one’s too big!” cries a girl wrestling a glove on to the wrong hand. “Like this?” asks another, trying to cram her hand up to the wrist into a mitt. After a few minutes of instruction and fidgeting, they run off to join their classmates, who are all lining up excitedly to learn to play catch.
It’s day one of Baseball 101.
We do our best to teach them. I’m one of a trio of Little League coaches in Alexandria who taught baseball to fourth graders—most of whom never had a chance to play for various reasons— during two-week sessions in each of the city’s elementary schools during the past year.
Our program, which launched in the fall of 2021, is the product of a five-year partnership between Alexandria Little League and city’s public schools. Our coaching team consists of Little League president Sherry Reilly, Hughes Page, who pitched at the University of Virginia and is co-founder of Up Next Baseball, LLC, and myself. Reilly conceived the idea in discussions with a friend, Kristin Donley, who leads the school district’s health, family life and physical education programs. Donley says she’s received “nothing but glowing feedback” from teachers and school administrators.
We piloted the program at a local elementary school in November, and it was so successful that we just kept going, spending about an hour a day around a dozen or so Alexandria schools. We introduced baseball to nearly 900 nine and 10-year-olds and next year it’s our aim to visit every elementary school in the city and reach close to 1,200 kids.
Our goal is to increase baseball’s popularity and our league’s diversity. Teaching the game in public schools allows us to reach all children, not just those in affluent zip codes who are the most frequent league registrants. It’s too early to tell what impact we’ll have on Little League registration, of course, but what matters to me is the opportunity to get kids excited about baseball and possibly create some lifelong fans at the same time.
Our classes offer children a chance to get outside, run around, and learn a new game filled with challenges and surprises. Over the first few days we keep it simple, teaching how to throw and catch, and hit into a net. By the end of week one, we organize T-ball and coach-pitch games, offering encouragement and support.
It’s a thrill when a child gets a hit and scampers around the base as classmates cheer and outfielders (along with infielders, sometimes) chase the ball. Sometimes players surprise themselves with a good throw or a difficult catch, the field echoing with shouts and laughter.
We’re not trying to turn every fourth grader into a ballplayer. We just hope everyone has fun playing ball, and we try to make sure that everyone at every skill level is successful.
We’ve had as much success working with children with special needs as we have had with students who already have baseball experience. Some of the most gratifying moments come when students cheer on their classmates.
“We had a fantastic experience,” says Danny Wadeson, a physical education teacher at Mount Vernon Community School and youth soccer coach. “The [coaches’] warmth and love of the game transferred to our fourth-grade students, who had a blast.”
I like to imagine elated children telling their families at dinnertime how much fun they had that day playing baseball. I suspect, in many cases, that’s exactly what happens. One Friday, as we were packing up to leave, two boys got permission from their teacher to run back and thank Hughes.
“Coach, thank you so much for the last two weeks of baseball,” one said. “They were the best two weeks of my life.”