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Baseball Coach Teaches Kids More than Catch

Orthopedic surgeons are treating more cases of youth baseball injuries. Some experts say the arm injuries among young ball players are due to poor pitching techniques or overuse. Others blame parents and leagues for pushing kids to compete too hard.

One coach in Washington, D.C., is not pointing fingers. Instead, John McCarthy is trying to teach kids to play baseball for the love of the game. His home base is the neighborhood park across the street from the house where he grew up.

Sandlot Baseball

On summer mornings when he was a kid, McCarthy rolled out of bed and went straight to his window, he remembers.

"I could see the whole park," McCarthy says. "If it was a nice day, we'd make a few phone calls and next thing you know, four or five kids would ride their bikes down, and we'd start playing."

McCarthy went on to captain his college team and play in the minor leagues, but his childhood love was stickball. Instead of bats and balls, his gang preferred old rakes and tennis balls.

They spent the whole day in the park, recalls McCarthy.

"No one made us do it. No one watched or recorded it all. We did it because we loved it," he says.

Three decades later, McCarthy's bringing hundreds of kids ages 4 to 14 back to Washington, D.C.'s, Friendship Park for baseball camps.

In this era of formal leagues and all-star teams, McCarthy is trying to revive the spirit of neighborhood ball.

No Score

Coach Mac, as he's known to all the kids, puts his players in charge on the field. As he watches his 7-year-old campers play, he explains that he doesn't keep score.

"I want full effort, but I won't keep score. And there are no trophies here. The reward here is the satisfaction of playing baseball," McCarthy says.

McCarthy didn't play any organized sports until eighth grade. Now, many kids start much younger. Youth sports have just exploded, he says: "It's younger, it's more competitive. They play more seasons, and I just think it's leading to burnout and leading to arm injuries."

Quantifying the rise in injuries is tough. A group of doctors at the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine has begun gathering numbers, and they've also released new recommendations for prevention.

One idea tested this spring by Little League Baseball is a pitch-count program that limits the number of times a player can pitch during an inning. This might help protect players' arms.

There's also a move to limit the curve ball. This pitch forces kids to quickly turn their arms when they throw. Some coaches love the curve for the competitive edge. But many doctors say the curve puts too much pressure on children's ligaments that are still developing.

McCarthy discourages his players from throwing curves.

"The curve ball should be added when you're 17 or 18. Hyper-competitive coaches use it because they get wins," he says. "But I think it retards the player's development for the long-run. My dream is to see my players succeed when they're 20 years old, not 10."

Building Good Sportsmanship

Some of McCarthy's campers are building the foundation to compete in competitive leagues. Others are just flirting with the game. But every once in a while McCarthy's infectious love of the game can turn a kid's life around.

"My dad wasn't in my life that much," says 20-year-old Anthony Taylor. "So I needed a male, and that male came along."

Taylor and McCarthy first met 14 years ago when McCarthy was playing in the minor leagues for a Baltimore Orioles farm team. McCarthy was invited to Taylor's elementary school to talk to the kids.

"At the end of the talk, I said to the kids, 'Good luck. I'll see ya down the road,'" McCarthy recalls.

But on his way out the door, seven-year-old Anthony stopped him and asked whether he could stay and teach the class to play baseball. Taylor told McCarthy his school didn't have a team.

McCarthy says he couldn't turn the kid down. Within a few months, he started a lunchtime baseball program at Taylor's school, and eventually coached them in a league.

Taylor says he learned a lot more than baseball from McCarthy; he learned sportsmanship and mental control.

"I would get angry and storm off the field when things didn't go my way," Taylor says. "And each time, Coach Mac would come find me and talk to me."

Taylor has just finished his junior year of college on a baseball and football scholarship. This summer he's helping McCarthy run the Home Run Baseball Camp, and each week he brings a handful of kids from the inner-city neighborhood where he grew up.

"Some of these kids are like me," says Taylor "They're good kids. They just need leadership the way we needed it."

Staying in the Moment

At the end of each camp day, all the campers take a seat on a row of bleachers for McCarthy's pep talks and demonstrations. One recent afternoon, he talked to the kids about the importance of stillness.

He told them to watch closely as one of his coaches caught a ball.

"Notice how the glove stays right there? It doesn't move that much." McCarthy tells the kids to be still when they bat, too: "Still head, still legs."

Kids are always moving and rushing. "Sometimes our culture pushes kids out of the moment, to the next grade, next week, next activity," he says.

McCarthy encourages them to stay in the moment.

"I think when you're centered and still, it allows you to see the ball travel, to see the play unfold. You can be present to play and compete."

When he talks to the kids about stillness, they know he's talking about baseball. But what they probably don't realize yet is that he's also talking about life.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.