Share this article

print logo

Keeping fun in fundamentals

Throwing. Catching. Batting. Baserunning.

As any baseball coach or accomplished player can tell you, learning the fundamentals correctly is harder than it seems. How well youngsters learn these skills can also make a difference in whether they continue playing and developing.

This summer, there are more than 15 full- or half-day baseball camps in Western New York, where kids take part in instructional drills and scrimmages geared at helping kids get better at the basics. For a complete listing, see Page 5.

"What I've seen as a scout is that the lack of fundamentals catches up with kids. Having good fundamentals can keep a kid playing as long as his natural ability will allow him to," said Don Fontana, a scout for the Milwaukee Brewers who will be operating the Gold Glove Baseball Camp for the ninth year at Cardinal O'Hara High School in Tonawanda.

Take throwing a ball, for instance.

"If you talk to other scouts, they'll say that throwing ability is a declining skill. It's harder to find kids who can throw the ball well, whose arms work well and throw with velocity and distance. So, we spend a lot of time on throwing, with different throwing drills, while keeping the focus on the mechanics of throwing."

It's important, Fontana said, because many kids who never learn to throw a ball properly wind up falling through the cracks as the distance between bases increases to 60 and then 90 feet.

"That one skill washes kids out of baseball more than anything," he said.

Fontana, who also scouted for the Pittsburgh Pirates and owns a master's in education from Niagara University, keeps the focus on personal improvement rather than competition.

He holds two 1-hour scrimmages daily to go with morning and afternoon drills, with one assistant director and four coaches assisting him.

"I don't want the emphasis to be on winning; it's skill- and learning-oriented. We don't keep score, which gives kids the freedom to try something new," Fontana said.

"I want the kids to just have fun. If they want to play five or six positions, then go ahead. Or switch hit. You have a week of camp, you're going to have 40 to 50 at bats in five days. Give 20 of those up and switch hit. No one cares."

The kids -- there were 42 boys and one girl last summer, ages 6 to 13 -- discuss baseball trivia at the start of each day.

"Before moving to Atlanta, what city did the Braves play in?" Fontana asked one sunny July day last summer, as the kids gathered around him on the grandstand. The boy with the correct answer -- "Milwaukee" -- was rewarded with a pack of baseball cards.

"We want to give them a sense that the game has tradition, history, continuity," Fontana said later.

He also asked the kids, "What's the most important thing in baseball, and in life? What do your parents want you to do?" After a few answers missed the mark, Fontana said, "Doing your best."

Fontana has also done special sessions through the years for coaches at the Hertel North Park Youth Baseball League.

"His ability to teach and his awareness of the game and how to talk to the kids is really something special. He taught me some things on how to coach I never could have learned through a book," said Paul Fuzak, a board member.

"My son went to his camp and had a great time, and learned a lot."

Another camp goal is instilling good character, including sportsmanship, respect for teammates and "letting the umpires' umpire. The one thing we say here is, the umpire may be wrong, but he's still the umpire."

That's a rule of thumb Buffalo Bisons ballplayers know to be an undeniable fact. Some are expected to take part in a three-day youth camp at Coca-Cola Field along with Wally Backman, the team's manager, and some of the coaches.

The camp works on baseball fundamentals as kids move through work stations in each half-day of instruction. At the end of the third day, there is an autograph session, along with free game tickets and a T-shirt.

"This is a great opportunity to learn from a coaching staff who not only teach players on a professional level, but have been former major leaguers themselves," said team spokesman Brad Bisbing. "To have the opportunity to learn from these teachers is special and unique."

Canisius College's baseball camp, run by the Griffins' coaches and players, also puts players through the basics of baseball, but with an added summertime twist.

"We get a hose out for the baserunning and make like a 'Slip 'N Slide,' " said Matt Mazurek, the camp's assistant coach. "It's fun, but at the same time it's teaching these kids what they need to know about the game as they get older."

Fun and fundamentals are also part of University at Buffalo's baseball camp game plan, which involves the use of college and former professional players to work with the kids.

"In addition to learning the fundamentals, we have a lot of different contests and games that make it fun for the kids, and keeps them interested," said Ron Torgalski, UB's baseball coach who has run the camp the last 12 years.

The Sandlot Academy of WNY's baseball summer camp, in Getzville, also features in-depth instruction together with games and activities.

"We try to raise confidence in each individual's abilities and try to get back to the enjoyment of the game," said Art Lauer, who owns the summer camp.

"A lot of time kids go out and have too much pressure to succeed. And one of the things we try to do with them is make it fun, because the fun of the sport has to be there."