NEW YORK CITY — A local kids' baseball club is using a host of imaginative tactics to keep youngsters interested in the game — including getting them to think of their baseball bat as a living thing.
As 3- and 4-year-olds step up to home plate for their turn at bat, coaches encourage them to talk to the bat before taking a swing, said Stephen DeBlasi, owner of the Bulldog Ball Club.
“They say, ‘Wake up bat’ and then get it ready to go,” DeBlasi said, adding that the technique is one of many the program draws from the worlds of acting, music and imaginative play.
To teach kids how to quickly move from base to base, coaches tell them to crouch like an “alligator.” To help them learn to tag players out, the team plays duck-duck-goose around the bases, DeBlasi said.
“At a young age, it can be boring for children to stand around waiting for their turn,” DeBlasi said. “The key is to let them have fun, make them want to come back and learn all those skills.”
The Bulldog Ball Club, which offers a weekly baseball instruction camp to children throughout the summer, as well as year-round classes, teaches the fundamentals of baseball through games including "musical bases" and one called the “fly-ball rocket ship.”
DeBlasi, 42, an Upper East Side father of two boys, who played baseball at the University of Georgia and previously coached the Cape Cod Baseball League, started the Bulldog Ball Club in 2004. In the past three years, he has expanded the program to even younger children barely out of diapers.
“The hardest part for kids at that age is touching the ball,” DeBlasi said. “They like to catch with their fingertips instead of up, over the shoulder. Even then, though, the chances of them catching it up in the air is pretty painful.”
To get kids from being scared when a ball is hurtling towards them, the coaches use a homemade “rocket ship,” made out of plastic and scarves. The rocket is so light, when it’s thrown up, it floats down slowly so that kids can easily catch it in the proper stance.
Many of the coaches in the program are trained actors or performers with backgrounds in baseball, said DeBlasi, who has coached baseball for the past 13 years.
Codey Girten, the 28-year-old lead coach and head of the club's pre-K program, studied performance arts at Indiana University, and toured around the world as a performer of children's theater. He's coached at the Bulldog Ball Club for three years.
"Each day we're something different, whether it's heroes or aliens," said Girten. "We played alien baseball for 45 minutes the other day. Getting them to love baseball — that's really half the battle. The fact that they get the skills to play is just a bonus."
From June through August, Bulldog Ball Club will be offering a half-day summer camp for children ages 6 to 10 years old, and a 45-minute “after-camp” program for children ages 3 to 5.
For the younger children, time slots of 2, 3 and 4 p.m. are available on weekdays.
The classes are open to boys and girls. Most classes are held in Central Park's Great Lawn, but the classes will move indoors in case of rain.
The cost is $250 per week for 3- to 5-year-olds, which includes a T-shirt or a hat, and a trophy at the end of the week. For the 6- to 10-year-olds, the cost is $495 per week.
There are about 400 children enrolled in the program and class sizes range from four to 16, depending on the age group.
Over the years, the coaches have come up with songs to help children learn basic skills, such as catching.
"Watch it now, you can see it fallin,'" one song goes. "Into your glove, everybody's callin'. So throw the ball with an up, around, an out and a down!"