Nine-year-old Noah Crisol, standing on the cool green grass of the Hart High School baseball field, threw a ball to Hart junior Taj Brar on Wednesday morning in mid-70-degree weather, with a slight breeze in the air. He asked the high schooler if he wanted to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers one day.
Brar caught the ball, which was probably a tad too high judging by his jump and reach, and said he’d love to play for the Dodgers. Crisol replied, “Me, too,” looking eager to get the baseball back.
Other kids on the field from the neighboring Boys & Girls Club asked players from the Hart baseball team how to hold the bat, how to catch fly balls and if the high school had a wrestling team.
During “Kids Day at the Field,” which was hosted by the Hart High Dugout Club — the boosters for Hart High baseball — Hart sophomore, junior and senior baseball players in summer camp worked with more than 30 kids from the Boys & Girls James T. Ventress Clubhouse next door to teach them some of the basics. Thirty-plus-year baseball head coach Jim Ozella said the clinic, which they did last year and another time before the pandemic, was as much of a learning experience for his players as it was for the kids.
“It’s a matter of being involved in the community,” he told The Signal just before everyone hit the field. “It’s an opportunity to learn how to teach the game of baseball, learn how to have fun, and, you know, be teachers for a day.”
As country music played from what seemed to be the sound system in the stands, Ozella spoke with the kids about what to expect from the next hour to an hour and a half.
“All these guys here are players for us,” he told them. “What we’re here to do today is we want to give you a little bit of a baseball clinic.”
And he got to know the kids before getting started.
“How many here have played baseball before?” he asked them. “Raise your hand.”
Less than half the kids raised their hands.
He asked how many were Dodger fans. Almost all of the kids raised their hands. Ozella then asked his players how many of them were Dodgers fans. It seemed like every player had his hand up, except one, and their coach was quick to point out the San Francisco Giants fan in the group, and that fan’s teammates let him know what they thought of him using their own unique form of communication.
“We’re here to have fun today,” Ozella reminded the kids and perhaps his players, too.
Steve Downs, president of the Hart High Dugout Club and father of Chris Downs, one of the seniors on the field, told The Signal that many of the players, at first, weren’t so enthusiastic about doing the clinic, some even grumbling about it. You’d never know as they paired up with kids and worked with them on their stretches.
The players seemed to be natural teachers throughout the clinic, demonstrating to their kids how to balance during at least one particular exercise, how to put on a baseball glove, how to step into a throw or tag the corner of a base when baserunning.
The players got to know their kids, acknowledging them by name with words of encouragement.
“Perfect. Let’s go, Adrian,” said one player.
Another player from a nearby group shouted, “Good job, Alec.”
“I don’t see many of them not having a good time,” Downs said as they wrapped up batting practice and were about to go into some games. And Downs was right. The players and kids seemed to be having a blast, if you could judge by all the smiles and infectious energy on the field.
Hart senior Mikey Rogozik asked his group of kids, “Do you guys want to do boys versus girls?” The kids went wild with their approval of the idea. Screaming was more like it.
Rogozik and other players quickly assessed positions. “Who’s a really good catcher?” Rogozik asked. When he found that kid, he told him, “You’re first base.”
Other players had to remind those kids not up at bat to set down their instruments for clobbering baseballs. Rogozik’s pitching allowed those kids who were batting to do just that — send baseballs flying into the air.
Abby Alvidrez, the branch manager for the James T. Ventress Clubhouse, told The Signal that the kids had been excited about doing the clinic all week.
“There are a lot of kids that wouldn’t even know how to play baseball,” Alvidrez said, “and because of this clinic, it teaches them that they could do it. You know, this is something that they could be open to doing now.”
That’s often all it takes for a young person to find a passion, Rogozik said.
“I mean, I know that from a young age, I always loved baseball,” he said. “It took someone to get me into it.”
For Rogozik, it was his dad, he added. “This (clinic) gives me a chance to be that same person.”
After the games, the players and kids were treated to hot dogs, chips and drinks. While most everyone dug in, some of the kids from the Boys & Girls Club had to run next door for eye exams. The players working with those kids waited to eat.
“Seven of our guys there are not eating,” Ozella pointed out. “They’re waiting for their kids to come back and finish up the experience the right way.”
To Ozella, this work he and his team were doing for the kids was special. Downs said it’s probably because Ozella is a product of the Boys & Girls Club, though, Ozella said later that, at the time, it was just the Boys Club.
“I played a lot of basketball at the Boys Club,” he said. “Learned how to jump off of a trampoline, learned about friends, learned about being supportive of each other, friends helping out…”
Ozella got distracted as those kids who’d left for eye exams were back, grabbing hot dogs with their player/mentors. He seemed genuinely proud of his guys for what they were doing, and he expressed his gratitude to all those who took part in something that might seem little but was, to him, clearly important.
The baseball coach passed that importance on to his players. And you only had to hear and see those kids laughing, cheering and having what seemed to be a great time to know it was important to them, too.