By Chase VanHorn (JMU Class of 2020)
The Harrisonburg Little League Association has created Pitch-In, a new program that will be featured in this year’s Bat-A-Thon Nov. 7 at Horizons Edge Sports Campus.
Pitch-In was introduced to HLLA at the beginning of its season last year as a “trial” run by volunteer head coach Jared Dull, his wife, Brooke, and fellow board member, Dee Ritchie. Jared felt HLLA needed a “give back program.”
On registration day alone last year, Jared and Pitch-In donated equipment or clothing to roughly seven families. After the season was finished, Pitch-In had helped as many as 20 families.
Jared and Brooke knew they had created an equal opportunity in Harrisonburg for all children to play baseball or softball regardless of financial situations and felt it was important to make improvements for this upcoming season.
According to a report of CBS News, the number of participants in sports of families who make less than $75,000 has dropped as well as the average family spends roughly $700 a year on equipment, fees, and more . The report also said cost is the top reason for middle- and lower-income families for their children not to participate in organized sports.
”It took numerous board meetings to brainstorm ways to improve Pitch-In,” said Jared,“This year, Pitch-In is better than before and in full force.”
A Pitch-In booth will be set up during the Bat-A-Thon to inform individuals on the improvements. First, Jared no longer operates Pitch-In from his car, but rather in storage units. “We wanted to create a large stock-pile to avoid not having enough equipment.”
Second, Pitch-In is a year round program. The booth during Bat-A-Thon is simply a way to get the word out. There will be a collection box along with the booth. But, families can donate during any time of season. Also, promoting the program has been a focus point, so expect Pitch-In booths at all HLLA events moving forward.
Third, Pitch-In is not just for donations, but rather a way to “borrow and bring back.”Jared added, ”if any kid borrows a piece of equipment from Pitch-In and finds they are beginning to outgrow it, HLLA will allow kids to swap items as long as they remain in good condition.”
The Bat-A-Thon is HLLA's annual fundraiser to reward the players for their fundraising efforts. Players are asked to raise $50 which is turned into tickets that can be redeemed at the Prize Tent. Each player will also get a chance to take some swings and earn cool prizes.
So, come out and support the HLLA. And, most importantly children can have fun, while HLLA volunteers will follow the safety guidelines to ensure everyone is safe from Covid-19. All participants need to wear a mask unless they are participating in on-field activities. You can still RSVP for the event at https://forms.gle/RBWdiVtJ3xbLqq4w6.
For some, participating in the Harrisonburg Little League Association has become a family tradition. For Preston Knight, currently a head coach in the farm league, the HLLA has been a consistent part of his life dating back to childhood, when he was a player in the Little League, Babe Ruth League and the Pony League.
“I have fond memories of Little League. That was my peak performance in terms of my ability to help the team win. I was always a lot larger than the other kids and had an intimidation factor when I was pitching,” recalled Knight.
Knight’s success in the league paved the way for him to continue his career after progressing through the HLLA. He was a member of his high school’s varsity baseball team and continued playing up until his graduation.
One of the main contributing factors as to why Knight loves playing and coaching the game so much is because of how important teamwork is, along with the thrill of seeing his players succeed. He also believes that teamwork is an important dynamic that carries over into multiple walks of life. Especially when you get a job, whether it’s a large or small company, Knight believes you always have to be a team player.
“It’s the best when teamwork is organic, and you see your team supporting the success of everyone else around them. Having the common belief that your teammates getting more hits will lead to you getting to hit more, leads to a vested interest in your teammates doing well. That’s a big thing that you can’t get if you don’t play sports, it doesn’t matter if you’re doing great if you are just there to enjoy the success of your friends for the hour. Overall, it’s really exciting to see them come together as a team.”
Knight believes his son has already gained a lot in his short time with the HLLA. Dawson, who is seven years old has enjoyed playing baseball so far. “I kept my fingers crossed that hopefully he would like it somewhat. I didn’t want to force anything, but I strongly encouraged baseball because it was my main sport growing up. I guess I did a good enough job because he liked it enough; even as a two-year-old smacking a ball around in the driveway with a waffle ball bat or throwing a tennis ball against a wall.”
Baseball has been a breath of fresh air for the Knight family. In a culture where video games and electronics are in constant use, the HLLA has given Dawson a few guaranteed hours a week where he is outside and remaining active. “He does the Fortnite dance, but he has not touched the game himself. Hopefully that is many years down the road,” joked Knight.
At the end of the day, Knight believes that the only thing that matters is that the children are enjoying their experiences in the little league. He hopes that someday his son and other kids can return to the league like he has now and reflect on their experiences with the HLLA, while also giving back to the organization that is responsible for many of his fondest childhood memories.
Nick Keen works the night shift Sunday to Thursday, 8 pm to 4:30 am. His schedule is busy. Between his career and spending time with his wife and two daughters, the balancing act is a tough regiment.
By the time Nick gets home from work in the wee hours of the morning, sleep is the last thing on his mind.
Growing up, Nick stayed active any way he could. While living in Florida, he played on a local little league team, but mostly made due with what he and his friends had. This often took the form of an empty parking lot. It was on the blacktop where Keen first fell in love with the sport.
Keen moved to Virginia when he was 12 and has lived all over the state from New Market, to Broadway, to Timberville and finally Harrisonburg, where he has lived for the past six years.
Nick heard of HLLA after his daughter brought home a flyer from school. Knowing she was already involved with gymnastics, Keen instead turned toward his nephew, Brantley, with an offer that was too sweet to pass up.
“I told him I would take him to all of the practices, games and things so he would do it.”
Brantley Griffith is six years old and will play his first season with HLLA on a Sandlot Tee-ball team.
“This is his first sport. He’s only had two practices, and he loves it.”
With a digital age, many parents are concerned that games, such as Fortnite, keep kids indoors. But Keen finds that this is not the case for his daughters or his nephew.
“They love being outside playing, so it’s no issue with them wanting to be active. He [Brantley] likes going out and doing things. I’ll take him fishing with me.”
The routine has quickly become an opportunity for the whole family to come together.
“My wife will stay home with the kids, or she’ll bring them out there with us,” said Nick. “His mom and grandma will sit along there with me at the practices. And I’ll give a hand to the coach where he needs it.”
For Nick, he puts in the time because of what he got out of the sport when he was younger.
“I mean it’s busy, but it’s worth it. It’s something for the kids and seeing him have fun — really, that’s worth it.”
As you drive through town it’s hard to miss one of HLLA’s roadside ads. This is how Chris Pipkins was first introduced to the league. He is a local by all accounts. He attended JMU for grad school in the early nineties and returned to Harrisonburg in 1997, where he has lived ever since.
Chris enjoys baseball, and he himself played up through the seventh grade. Though for Chris, it was always more of an activity rather than a vocation. For Chris— while an Orioles fan— he is involved with the league, first and foremost because of his son Lennox. Lennox Wright-Pipkins is six years old, and has fallen in love with America’s favorite pastime.
“We would play baseball out in the yard and he seemed to like it. Then I took him to an Orioles game and that’s when he seemed interested in playing on a team,” said Pipkins.
When the league needed another set of hands on the field, Chris stepped up to serve as an Ad Hoc coach. Contrary to popular belief, the league is not made up of all veteraned coaches. In fact, what it often needs most is just that extra person to step up.
“They needed another dad to work with one or two kids. I was there, and I happened to have my glove with me. I wasn't pressured or obligated, I just saw that there were 900 people at Opening Day, but not everybody got to be on the field. I felt useful when I showed up,” said Pipkins.
For Pipkins, it was incredibly rewarding to take on the unexpected role. He got to be more in-touch with his son’s interests, while also making new friendships with league parents. Chris let his son play baseball for reasons that surpass just the joy of the game. “I think baseball asks for a different skill-set than some of the other sports. Its a team but with an individual component.”
As HLLA gears up for the 2019 season, Chris is optimistic about the future of parent involvement. “I think there's a lot of events that provide opportunity for the community to come together,” he said.
Jared Dull is both a parent and a volunteer coach with the Harrisonburg Little League Association. Dull balances supporting his players while working full time, serving as a longtime member of the Harrisonburg community. Born in Staunton and raised in Harrisonburg, Dull played on little league teams up until he went to Harrisonburg High School before graduating in 2004.
Jared Dull shares his joy for the game with his three children, Troy, Charlie and EJ. His son Troy is starting his fourth year with HLLA. “He had a bat in his hand before he was two years old,” said Dull. He believes baseball offers important values and lessons on teamwork that other sports simply cannot imitate. “It's the best team sport I know of, because it requires everyone to come together. So I tried to make sure my sons had a similar experience to what I had growing up.” Both Charlie and EJ are entering into their second year with the HLLA.
The recipient of a local “Little League World Series” trophy, Dull cherishes his memories of playing for the Minnesota Twins. To this day, he stays in touch with many of his old teammates, some who went on to play at the collegiate level for programs such as Virginia Tech.
Having lived in the area his whole life, Dull has seen first hand how both Harrisonburg, and its league have grown over the years. “I have seen Dean work hard to make HLLA bigger and to increase participation. He did it his own way, and he’s really getting the community more involved.”
Dull is a prime example of the dedicated parents that maintain the all-star reputation of the HLLA. From player to parent to assistant coach, Dull will be entering the 2019 season as a returning head coach for a farm league baseball team. “I try to get my hands involved in just about everything we do. My whole family gets involved with fundraising.”
While his role as a dad brought him back into the league, he explained how local community members can support the league regardless of if they have children who play.
“My team sponsor doesn’t have kids but is invested in baseball. There is no better way to serve than to serve your local community, all while getting your name out there,” he said.
HLLA Story is an official blog site of the Harrisonburg Little League Association. All contents are managed by the Bluestone Communications, a student-run public relations agency at James Madison University. Please contact Kevin Leaven (firstname.lastname@example.org), an account executive of the Bluestone Communications., if you have any questions about the blog or the stories.