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Ballfields and Boardrooms - A whole new ballgame

July 26, 2006|by BOB PARASILITI

Jonathan Niese struck his pose.

The Hagerstown Suns' starting pitcher leaned in, squinting, looking for a sign. He picked up the message and rocked back to survey the situation.

The left-hander took in his surroundings, reading the faces of the group he was facing. He tried to pick up a hint, any hint, on how to make his pitch.

But Niese found himself in strange territory. Standing on a mound in the middle of a baseball feature has become second nature for the 19-year-old prospect of the New York Mets organization. Facing 225-pound men wielding sculpted tree limbs while he tried to throw a horsehide sphere past them seemed simple.

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This time, Niese was in a completely different arena. On this day, the opposition was a group of 6-to 12-year-olds from the Washington County Boys and Girls Club. And this pitch was purely verbal.

Niese was part of Ballfields and Boardrooms, an educational program created by the Mets to help their players make an impression in the communities where they play. Usually, when the player leaves, he's forgotten while only the key home runs he hit or strikeouts he pitched live with fans forever.

The hidden goal is to teach the local children and players alike some life lessons they can both use later in life. On this day, the menu was ethics, character, teamwork and rapport, all entities that are used, but never seen.

It is a grand plan by the Mets, which is a little sneaky in nature. The Mets are trying to teach their players how to be comfortable with public speaking - something that will be needed when the players get to the fishbowl called New York City and the majors - while having them teach others about things they themselves have to learn.

Four groups of two Suns players were each teamed with an area business professional to talk to the youth about character traits which could be used to help find success in the game of life. A second grouping of players and business leaders gave a second program to children from Frederick Manor on Monday.

The program, designed by Richard Astro of Drexel University, was designed to strike a chord with kids while trying to educate the players get ready for life after baseball.

For Niese, it might have been easier facing a Triple Crown contender in the early going.

Niese took some warmup tosses with his subject - rapport. The pitcher came in high and hard to the four groups of 15 children he met, trying to link his message to the game he plays.

He threw them a curve, talking about the communication the players need just to catch a fly ball. He changed up with the idea of how he has to trust his catchers and pitching coach to make the right decisions to help him be successful. He finished off by working inside, trying to convince the children that it takes an entire team to win games.

This was one time that Niese didn't mind being credited with a hit.

Like it or not, Niese and the rest of the Suns players are role models for most of the children in attendance. It isn't because of who they are. It's a case of what they are.

Kids tend to believe anything athletes tell them.

It is a difficult aspect for young players, especially for those who are only a few years older than the children they are teaching, to grasp.

At first, Niese and his teammates had no idea if anything they had done made any difference. The Boys and Girls Club clan was mulling around acting like kids at recess. Some came by asking for autographs and questioned the players about being rich.

Then, it came out of nowhere.

One little boy, Brandon Russ, hit the equivalent of a comebacker to the mound.

Russ stood in the middle of some of the players, looking up with dreams of being like them one day, and said.

"This is the best day I have ever had."

Somehow, you'd have to think this was one home run pitch that Niese and the rest of the Hagerstown Suns wouldn't mind being remembered for.




Bob Parasiliti is a staff writer for The Morning Herald. His column appears every other Tuesday. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2310, or by e-mail at bobp@herald-mail.com

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