Harbinger of Spring

Harbinger of Spring

Baseball begins as Mount Vernon High School players instruct local little leaguers.

Regardless of the weather, baseball fans know spring has come. In the balmy climes of Arizona and Florida, the pros have begun soft-tossing sessions and batting practice. And despite colder weather in Virginia, J.V. and varsity members of the Mount Vernon Majors suited up on Saturday to host their fourth “Meet the Majors Clinic,” a free morning of instruction for ballplayers ages 9 to 16.

When Bill Dempkowski became J.V. baseball coach at Mount Vernon High School four years ago, he suggested that the team hold a clinic each year for young players they might one day be coaching. Dempkowski had connections to youth coaches in the area because he used to coach his son’s team in Fort Belvoir.

“We work hard to maintain good relationships with our feeder groups,” explained Dempkowski, who is now the varsity head coach. Each year, he said, more players come. This year they had about 60. Mount Vernon players often come up through the Belvoir, Fort Hunt and Woodlawn Little League systems.

In the Mount Vernon field house, uniformed high school players worked with clusters of little leaguers, moving them from station to station to practice, according to J.V. coach Stan Carter, “the basic skills of baseball: how to throw the ball, how to hit the ball, how to field the ball.” Everywhere one looked, older players were breaking down fundamental mechanics that are often left untaught until high school. They advised outfielders to run towards the infield as they caught a fly ball so their momentum would strengthen their throw. They demonstrated overhand throwing techniques that would protect young arms and organized streams of base runners who practiced using the outside foot to touch the bag, a technique that lessens the risk of ankle sprains and occasionally might just allow a player to stretch a single into a double.

“It teaches them what the next level’s about,” said Mount Vernon coach Darrell Stevens. Teaching these lessons to what is essentially the team’s farm system will improve the varsity’s future, he explained. Players who arrive as freshman with sound fundamentals can learn higher-level concepts like communication between middle infielders (“Flip. Toss. Backside.”) or using “the four pivot points of a base” to turn a double play.

DEMPKOWSKI SAID the clinic also helps his current players, because teaching the fundamentals reinforces them. And working with young players is a morale booster. The adoration from younger fans “fuels the love again.” Dempkowski said his seniors always show up for Woodlawn Little League’s Opening Day, where the little leaguers treat them like heroes, often asking them to sign caps and balls. Dempkowski believes his players are good role models for young players who have dreams of a baseball career. They are reminders of the realistic steps that lie between Little League and the Major Leagues, and the determination it takes to succeed at every level.

Demetrius Judkins is a senior pitcher. Next year he’ll be perfecting his curveball at West Virginia University. On Friday, he was squatting a few dozen feet away from a line of young pitchers, helping them with “basic mechanics” he said, techniques of balance and follow-through that will preserve their arms. “You have to be able to teach somebody else what you do to be better at it,” he explained. “Not only am I helping them, but coming out here to teach them how to pitch helps me too.”

Jason Cruz, also a senior, was demonstrating the “baseball position” to a gaggle of little leaguers: feet at shoulder-width, butt down, glove extended at arm’s length with the back of the hand against the ground and the ungloved hand cupped over it, in case a tricky ground ball pops out. “When you’re a younger kid doing baseball, you look up to the older kids,” Cruz said. “Right now they’re looking up to us, so it feels kind of good showing them the right thing.”

IT WAS ALSO A CLINIC for parents and Little League coaches. These titles are often synonymous, Dempkowski said, because parents are often “thrust into” the role of baseball coach when their children want to join a team. Jeff Blackman, a Belvoir Little League Coach, brought five of his 9- to 12-year-old players to the clinic. He said he is learning what skills and techniques the Mount Vernon coaches will be teaching their players. Now he can prepare them in advance. After observing drills in last year’s clinic, he used the same ones throughout his team’s season.

Father and Belvoir Little League Coach Chad Sharritt said he appreciates the opportunity for his 9-year-old son to mingle with other players who live in the community around the base. “It’s nice to see that the community puts on something free for the kids,” he said.

“They’ve been cooped up all winter,” said Sharritt’s coaching colleague Mario Rodriguez, also the father of a 9-year-old, “the chance to put on a glove and get ready for baseball makes them excited about getting outside again.”