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Rai Wilson gives tips on hitting. Grad students pitch in

By Charlotte Crystal

Baseball isn’t just about pitching, hitting and fielding the ball. It’s also about practice, patience and perseverance, says Christopher Nichols.

The three P’s are some of the skills — as valuable in life as on the ball field — that Nichols and several other U.Va. graduate students are teaching a handful of players in Charlottesville’s McIntire Little League this season.

“There are profound lessons in sports, especially about dealing with success and failure,” said Nichols, a doctoral candidate in American history who played Little League baseball growing up and was a catcher in college at Harvard and Wesleyan universities. “Kids with problems in their lives have important lessons to learn at this age: Don’t give up. Keep trying. It takes practice. It takes hard work.”

Nichols is one of a dozen or so University grad students reaching out to city children, primarily African Americans, who would like to participate in Little League baseball, but have a hard time getting to practice. Through Practice Partners, a program started last year by Brian Balogh, associate professor of history at U.Va., and the McIntire Little League, kids who need transportation are matched with grad students with cars and a love of baseball.

“These students are terrific,” said David Mattern, senior associate editor of The Papers of James Madison and currently the coach of the McIntire Little League’s Dodgers, a team of 6- to 8-year-olds. “They’re enthusiastic and responsible and have a real affection for the kids. Plus they’re terrific ballplayers. The students who helped me last year all played in college, and one played semi-pro for the Charlottesville Blues. They can really teach and the kids really listen.”

Chris Nichols gives pointers on catching.
Photos by Peggy Harrison
U.Va. law student Rai Wilson, above right, gives tips on hitting, while grad. history student Chris Nichols, above left, gives pointers on catching. Wilson and Nichols volunteer in the Practice Partners program. Partners’ roles can include taking kids to and from little league practices and games, coaching or donating equipment.

Practice Partners is still warming up this year, said Nichols, who is heading the program now. He’d like to double the size of the program this year — to 20 students — and is still looking to sign up talent. He hopes the North Grounds Softball League will be a good source. “We’ll work with anybody, but we prefer people with some baseball skills,” he said.

Last year, the U.Va. students not only supplied transportation to and from games and practices, but also visited the children during the week, offering friendship and catching or batting practice.

“It’s something I believe in,” said Nichols. “It’s fun. Besides, these interactions can make a difference in the kids’ lives.”

Two players who participated last year later enrolled in a tutoring program at school.

“We try to be role models for the kids, to show them that the glass is half-full,” Nichols said.

Balogh conceived Practice Partners as a way for the McIntire Little League to reach out to the minority community. The adoptive father of three African-American children, Balogh, who is white, noticed that when his two sons, Dustin, now 15, and Jake, now 13, played Little League baseball, “there were few minority players, fewer minority coaches and no minority managers.”

Part of the reason, he thought, might be the league’s name at the time — the Dixie Little League. After joining the board and discussing the issue with African-Americans in the community, Balogh persuaded the league to change its name to the McIntire Little League about five years ago.

Then he turned his attention to ways the league could be more active in recruiting and retaining minority players.

Lots of local minority families did not have the time, available transportation or family tradition of playing baseball. A lack of equipment was often a factor as well. He worked with David Spinosa, then McIntire Little League president, to find a constructive way to make the league reflect the area’s complexion.

Balogh launched the program last year with several U.Va. students, an alum and 11 local ballplayers, ages 12 and under. The program attracted grad students from the College of Arts & Sciences, the School of Law and the Darden Graduate School of Business Administration.

Along with Nichols, last year’s participants included Rai Wilson, a J.D./Ph.D. candidate at the Law School who played in the outfield while an undergraduate at Princeton University, and Chris Williams, a defensive back for the U.Va. football team. Balogh’s sons also helped out.

Mattern, who worked with three U.Va. students last summer, is emphatic about the students’ impact on his team — the 9- to 12-year-old Twins. “The youngest kid had never played before but made tremendous progress after his baseball buddy bought him a glove,” he said. “Without the students’ help, half of my kids wouldn’t have made it to the games.”

The U.Va. students reminded the kids that even the best baseball players fail seven out of 10 times. If they quit after the first six failures, they’d stay failures. Instead, they step up to the plate whenever their name is called, eyeball the pitcher and swing hard.


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