Pitch, Hit & Run lets kids fulfill dreams
Children compete on field to win trip to Midsummer Classic
PHILADELPHIA -- Eight-year-old Ryan Yurkovic had his own cheering entourage.
Ten members of his family came to Citizens Bank Park on Saturday morning to watch him compete in the Pitch, Hit & Run Team Championships. Most donned customized T-shirts, designed by his mother, Donna, that said "Good Luck Ry" on the front and "See you in St. Louie" on the back.
They might get that chance. Yurkovic finished first in his age group, meaning that he and the winners from the other 29 big league cities will vie for tickets to the 2009 All-Star Game on July 14. The three highest scorers nationwide in each age group receive the all-expenses-paid trip to St. Louis, courtesy of Major League Baseball.
"If we go, great," said Ryan's father, Richard Yurkovic. "If we don't, look at the ride we've been on. It's all about the journey."
That was the consensus on Saturday, as 15 children, their families in tow, braved heavy rains to participate in the three events. With the tarp covering the infield, they were relegated to the left field warning track, but still, they looked in awe at the 45,000 seats above and their names displayed on Phanvision.
"You get to see what the players experience out there," said Kyler Brown, who won the 13-and-14-year-old division. "It's fun."
The other winners were Rhyce Hammaker (ages 9-10) from Harrisburg, Pa., and Aaron Akbar (11-12) from West Windsor, N.J.
First up was pitching. Clad in Pitch, Hit & Run T-Shirts and caps, players -- who had to win their region, and place in the top four among six regional champions to qualify -- lined up in the shadows of the left-field foul pole. Using the foul line as a makeshift rubber, they each hurled six balls toward a Major League strike zone-sized target 45 feet away. Some pitched from the stretch, others chose a full windup, but only accuracy mattered.
By chance, Yurkovic went first for all activities. He set a high bar for those who followed, as five of his tosses were on the mark.
Hitting, though, was his least favorite part. The goal was simple enough, but hard to execute: Send the ball off a tee as far and straight as possible. Points were awarded for distance and deducted for inaccuracy.
"It was hard to hit straight, because I'm used to hitting at home plate," Yurkovic said.
Even so, he was satisfied enough with his performance to give his dad a giant high-five after the three-swing at-bat. Parents had the option of staying dry or lining the first row to be closer to the action. Naturally, nearly all chose the latter. They also offered their children umbrellas. Naturally, all declined. Perhaps that's because Yurkovic, who picked up baseball at age 4 from his cousins, had a good professional role model. His favorite big leaguer is Raul Ibanez -- "He's just really good," Yurkovic said -- who is third in the National League in home runs and RBIs.
Conceivably, of course, Yurkovic and his companions could follow in Ibanez's footsteps. Brown, the oldest winner, said he wants to play baseball in high school and then, hopefully, college. Twelve former Pitch, Hit & Run national finalists have been drafted, including three first-round selections. Not bad, considering that the program was only re-launched in 1997, and that it takes at least several years to become Draft eligible.
But for the vast majority, Saturday may have been their shining moment.
"Depending on the child, this might be the most exciting thing that they ever do," said Abby Lane, the on-site coordinator.
The final event was running, with a slightly awkward setup thanks to the weather. Lane and her volunteer staff tried to simulate rounding the bases as best as possible. Children sprinted 80 feet on the warning track parallel to the outfield wall, turned, and continued an additional 80 feet along the left-field line.
Some big leaguers become winded after a similar two-base stretch. But kids are kids, tireless and carefree. On the way out, Yurkovic played catch with himself against Citizens Bank Park's brick outer wall, then dashed to his car, his father struggling to catch up.
"It's amazing," Donna Yurkovic said. "I'm just so happy for him. I'm thrilled. I knew he was gonna do it, though. That's why I [made the shirts]."
Other families weren't as gung-ho with their apparel. But it was still a unique and moving day, even for those who did not earn a first-place award. Everyone received a plaque indicating first through fourth place, a Phillies prize pack and complementary tickets to Saturday's game against the Orioles. The contestants were honored on the field shortly before first pitch.
"This is a great event because it brings kids with a baseball mind from all over the region," said Luther Collins, an event volunteer who goes by Coach Luther and coaches inner-city baseball in Philadelphia.
"It is just a great opportunity for them to gain some self-confidence in themselves and hone and show their skills. ... You can tell by the number of people out here in this rain that baseball is still alive."
David Gurian-Peck is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.