Tuesday, 26 May 2015 14:27

Mike Matheny manages the St. Louis Cardinals, but when his professional playing career ended he briefly managed a recreational youth baseball team. Before the season, he wrote a letter to the parents of his young players. It was not terribly different from pre-season messages NYO managers send every year.  Matheny has received almost as much attention for his views on youth sports as he has for his considerable success with the Cardinals.  Recently, a friend sent a link to an NPR Fresh Air interview with Matheny. 

Another spring baseball/fastpitch softball season has ended, but Matheny's message resonates, regardless of the time of year. Curious, I read the original letter, dubbed by some 'The Matheny Manifesto,' and had but one regret: That I hadn't written something as good when I managed NYO youngsters. It's a long letter, but I hope you will take the time to read it. Keep it, share it, but, most especially, live by it. Your children will be glad you did.   Jay Smith

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Saturday, 23 May 2015 12:16

If there are any baseball awards left for NYO and Marist alum Blake Stevens to win as a pitcher for Birmingham-Southern College, someone better identify them quickly. On Monday, Blake, a senior right-hander, was named South Region Pitcher of the Year by D3baseball.com. On Wednesday, D3baseball raised the stakes by naming him Division III national pitcher of the year, as well as First Team All-America. But that's not all.

The American Baseball Coaches Assn. named him its South Region Pitcher of the Year, and the Southern Athletic Assn., of which Birmingham-Southern is a member, named Blake pitcher of the year for the second consecutive season.  And Birmingham-Southern has named Blake its male athlete of the year. 

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Thursday, 14 May 2015 09:28

She came to the plate with two outs, her team trailing by a run and with runners on second and third. It was the bottom of the last inning in a post-season tournament game her team needed to win to continue its season. Ten-year-old Maggie Sutton struck out, according to her coach, Brian Raley, now commissioner of NYO's fastpitch softball program.  'At 10 that could crush a kid,' Brian recalls today. But she handled it, moved right past it.'

Now 16 and a 10th-grader at Woodward Academy, Maggie led her Senior-league Tridents to a regular-season championship with an 11-1 record. Brian Raley believes she caught every inning of every game. On a team with some players two to three years younger, 'you'd never know she's older,' Brian says. 'Maggie treats evereyone like a friend.' It's that sentiment, as much as for her abundant talents on the ball field, that Maggie was named the first-ever recipient of the Chris Deisley award.  In memory of the long-time Fastpitch coach and league leader, the Chris Deisley award goes to the young lady who best exemplifies sportsmanship, leadership and character. 

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Saturday, 09 May 2015 15:32

He arrived as the 'third assistant' coach to an NYO Majors team in 1996 or 1997. Fresh out of Emory, Ben Levenbaum was a long way from Long Island, where he grew up. 'NYO became home,' he says. But now it's time to go home, back to Long Island, back to family. In the two decades since starting as a 'third assistant' Ben has married, become a father --- twice, grown a successful business  and coached hundreds of NYO youngsters on more championship teams than any coach in recent memory.

As a way of saying 'thank you' and recognizing Ben's many years of service, NYO has named Ben this year's winner of the Suzanne Caswell Volunteer of the Year Award. 

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Saturday, 09 May 2015 14:48

From third base to first base, they form an arc around the infield of the Jane Wilkins Bronco Field. It's a semi-circle, but for 85 12-year-olds, the ceremony means they have come full-circle in their NYO careers. 'You have made it from the tee-ball field to here,' Baseball Commissioner Cliff Barshay tells the young players and their camera-toting parents. In fact, the ballplayers stand precisely where many of them lined up on another Saturday morning five, six, seven years ago when they filed into the Wilkins Field as little ones for the annual Opening Day parade.

It's NYO's answer to graduation day. One-by-one Cliff calls the names of 85 NYO players who are concluding this phase of their baseball careers.  Next up: Pony League, middle and high-school teams or, perhaps, the pursuit of another sport, another interest. 'I've had the privilege of watching you from age 5 to age 12,' Cliff says, calling this one of NYO's 'strongest classes' and certainly 'one of the most social,' as he tries to hush the exuberant ballplayers. Forty-four of the 85 began NYO as five-year-olds, according to Cliff, the most ever of any 12-year-old group.    

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Saturday, 09 May 2015 14:10

When a rival manager wishes you were on his team, that is the highest compliment of all. 'We need one (like him),' said an NYO Bronco manager who helped select Drew Holmes as the 2015 recipient of the Kyle Burnat award, given to the 12-year-old who 'most embodies the NYO experience.' The manager recounted an occasion when Drew struck out on a tough pitch. He didn't sulk, he didn't gripe. He hustled back to his Braves teammates in the dugout to tell them what the pitcher was throwing and to say, 'Don't worry, you'll hit him.'

Baseball Commissioner Cliff Barshay told the story as he introduced Drew, who trotted to the mound of the Jane Wilkins Bronco Field to receive his plaque. His fellow Bronco players cheered when Cliff called Drew's name. The plaque hangs on the wall facing the front door of the Dowis administrative building, signifying its importance.

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Friday, 08 May 2015 15:13

Brian Fielden is no slouch when it comes to NYO work. He coaches son Blake's 9-year-old AA team, serves as director for the Single-A league and sits on NYO's baseball committee.  But his voice swells with pride as he describes his wife, Paige, co-president of the baseball Volunteer Auxiliary. 'It's an honor for me to walk around NYO and introduce myself as Paige's husband,' Brian says. 'People don't know me, but they know her.'

Paige Fielden, it seems, is everywhere. Before the baseball season begins, Paige and co-president Kim Shoup organize and run meetings for team parents, plan the elaborate Opening Day festivities and parade and tend to the dozens of other behind-the-scenes details that spell success --- or failure --- for a dawning NYO season.  She also sits on the NYO governing board. 'Paige is driving the train,' says baseball commissioner Cliff Barshay. 'I just stay out of the way.' Pam Miller, Paige's NYO predecessor, calls Paige's operation a 'well-oiled machine.' The program's executive director Jane Wilkins, who says Paige and the women she recruits 'make Cliff look good,' offers a softer appraisal: 'She's a pure Southern belle.' This Mother's Day weekend it's appropriate to honor Paige and all the Moms who make NYO what it is.

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Tuesday, 28 April 2015 15:47

Joseph Charron remembers the walk-off home run he hit for the Bronco Yankees against the A's, but it's not his fondest memory of NYO.  'Playing wall ball, pickle, just hanging out' are the memories that bring a smile to Joseph's face. He is one of six seniors on the Holy Innocents' High School baseball team who grew up at NYO. Connor Dolan, another of the six, 'always had a ball in his hands from the time he could walk,' his dad recalls. 'He played at NYO starting at the AA level in 2006 as a 9-year-old continuing through International, Majors, Broncos and American League – Pony.'

Atlanta's high schools, public and private, have baseball rosters stacked with NYO alums. When Holy Innocents' plays Riverwood, when Westminster plays Lovett, when Marist, Pace, Woodward Academy, North Atlanta, Wesleyan or Galloway take the field their players find familiar faces in dugouts on both sides of the diamond. 'It's because of NYO,' says Sam Herrick, one of the Holy Innocents' Six.

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Wednesday, 22 April 2015 14:37

Their team pictures reside in frames or scrapbooks their old coaches treasure more than the former players will ever know. It's blurred, but the picture with this story is of the 1998 NYO Mets. Allan Gottlieb is the coach on the right and two players to his left in the front row is Ross Conway. Allan has a similar team photo of the 2001 NYO 9-year-old all-stars, including a young player named Will Sheppard.  

Those photos will come to life at 7:30 Friday night on the Austin Armstrong Field of Dreams. For Ross, now an assistant to his old manager Allan Gottlieb, will help guide the Cubs against the other top team in the NYO Majors, the Diamondbacks  And Will Sheppard will be in the opposing dugout, helping coach the D'backs. Four other 20-something coaches, including three who also grew up playing NYO baseball, will be in the respective dugouts. They represent a generation of young, talented, caring NYO alums who have returned and like nothing more than to match baseball wits with their former coaches.  'Time for the students to (hopefully) surpass their former master,' says Ed Goetze, who describes himself as the 'nominal head coach' of the Diamondbacks. Ed says he is helping his four young assistants 'for a year so they'll be ready to go out on their own next year.'

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Friday, 17 April 2015 14:10

It wasn't the blue-gray October sky Grantland Rice described when he wrote about Notre Dame's legendary Four Horsemen. Rather, it was a sunny Saturday afternoon in South Bend, Indiana, as two former NYO players came on in relief for their respective college teams, Notre Dame and Florida State. Sean Guenther, a lefty who grew up on the NYO fields, had recorded a save for Notre Dame Friday when he struck out five in the final two innings. Now, he faced Jim Voyles, who once played NYO Pony baseball with his twin brother (and FSU teammate), Ed.

'It was sort of surreal,' according to Ken Young, who was there. 'To show up in South Bend . . . for an ACC powerhouse matchup (Florida State was ranked 8th nationally at the time) and witness two opposing pitchers from NYO close the game.. . Wow!' Sean, a freshman and former Marist High School star, would get his third save of the season in the 4-1 win. Two of the five outs he recorded came by strikeouts. Notre Dame would sweep the three-game series.  Jim Voyles, an FSU sophomore who played at Holy Innocents', needed only 12 pitches as he struck out two of the three batters he faced. And they were not the only NYO alums on their teams.

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Saturday, 11 April 2015 10:28

In a file cabinet in her office in the Dowis Building, Jane Wilkins has every annual directory NYO has ever published. It's a treasure trove of names. And each of those names belongs to someone touched by NYO baseball, fastpitch softball, football, basketball or cheerleading.  As NYO looks ahead with a new strategic plan, perhaps we should pause to take a look back, too.

Six years, on average, according to Jane, NYO's executive director, is the time a family spends connected to our sports program. But they are crucial and formative years for a child. Life's lessons are learned. Friendships are forged. Growth occurs. For some, high school sports await. For most, other interests arise and NYO becomes a memory. It's a memory worth revisiting.

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Sunday, 05 April 2015 11:01

NYO's Opening Day must be like Christmas morning for baseball commissioner Cliff Barshay. There's the parade, thanks to the hard work of co-chairs Margaret Bryant, Laura Herakovich and Merideth Houseman, but there's always the big question: Who will Cliff tap to throw out the official first pitch?  It's Cliff's surprise gift under the NYO Christmas tree.

'All three are now playing professional baseball,' Cliff intones as he speaks of the young men who grew up on NYO's baseball fields. 'They're working their way up through the system, and all are at spring training (which is why they could not be here). So, we did the next best thing. We asked their fatherrs to throw out the first pitch.'  John Thomas (Yankee minor leaguer Brandon's dad), Ken Young (father of future Cub Chesny) and Randy Rhino, standing in for Bryan Farmer (whose son Kyle catches in the Dodgers' organization), took their places on the mound. Behind the plate stood Thomas Markwalter, of the NYO Bronco Yankees, Christopher Fielden, of the NYO Majors Cubs, and Jonah Glenn, of the Bronco Dodgers, each boy matched with the organization for which the fathers' sons play.

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Saturday, 04 April 2015 11:30

Chris Deisley showed up one day, and he never stopped showing up. 'You wander out here with your daughter,' Fastpitch Softball Commissioner Brian Raley recalls of Chris and seven-year-old Caroline, 'and (before long) she's a star for the Lovett High School team.' Five years after Caroline, now a student at the University of Southern California, moved on from NYO, Chris Deisley remained. 'There was virtually nothing about softball he didn't do,' Brian Raley remembers. 'At tryouts, he hit flyballs. He was the go-to guy on drafts. Everyone listened to him. He was our scheduler and re-scheduler. He ran the youth umpiring and all-star programs.' For seven years, he served as the Fastpitch's assistant commissioner.

On January 20, Chris, who was 55, lost a two-year fight with brain cancer. This year, NYO fastpitch softball players will wear a patch with his initials, JCD, on their jerseys. At 2 p.m. Sunday March 29, all fastpitch games were halted and 200 gathered on the Larry Bennett field to remember Chris Deisley. Caroline, home from USC, her mother Laura and brother Will were there to receive a framed NYO shirt with Chris's initials on it. Those initials and Chris's first name were chalked on the infield where the ceremony took place.

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Friday, 13 March 2015 12:05

For the first time in many a year I will miss NYO's Opening Day ceremonies. I'll miss the volunteers who worked so hard for 24-straight hours to hang red-white-and-blue bunting and to inflate all those colorful balloons. I'll miss the little boys and girls tramping across the still-dewy outfield grass of the Garr Field, looking for the banner that signals where their baseball or fastpitch softball teams are to gather. I'll miss the team Moms and coaches who bedeck their players in Mardi Gras-style beads, then lose track of them just as the big parade is about to begin. I'll miss the high school cheerleaders and mascots who attract wide-eyed little ballplayers wherever they go.

I'll miss the loud music that Billy Small plays as the teams march into the Jane Wilkins Bronco Field after they have snaked their way down stairs, around and back up stairs next to the Dowis Building. I'll miss baseball commissioner Cliff Barshay pacing the infield, microphone in hand as row-after-row of little ones form an arc in the outfield that stretches from third-base line to first-base line. I'll miss Cliff's patter, so familiar one year to the next. I'll miss all the official welcomes from all the adults as little players grow restless. The National Anthem will be sung and someone special will deliver the first pitch. From their perch in deep center-field, Larry and Debbie Bennett will take it all in, knowing Larry's non-stop work has yet again made the fields ready and beautiful. I'll miss all these things, but I'll know another NYO baseball/fastpitch softball season is officially under way.

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Sunday, 01 March 2015 11:45

Jackson Lee Wallis, 11, took the pitcher's mound in relief for the NYO Majors Mets. The 10 a.m. game on the Austin Armstrong Field of Dreams began with a temperature of 39 degrees and a wind chill that made it feel like 32.  Jackson Lee's fingers were stiff with cold, making it difficult to grip the baseball. Home plate umpire Rhonda Clore ('I'm not just Blue, I'm the mother hen') called time and visited the pitcher with one of those hand-warming packets more commonly found on ski slopes. Warming his fingers between pitches, Jackson Lee induced an inning-ending groundout to his shortstop. Welcome to NYO baseball 2015.

Cold, wet weather hit pre-season practices hard. 'Most (teams) have had three to five on-field practices,' according to Baseball Commissioner Cliff Barshay. Normally they would have between 9 and 12. Because of a tighter-than-usual baseball calendar, NYO has started its season for the older baseball and fastpitch softball teams earlier than normal for the second straight year. In the past, the season began after spring break for private schools and ended the week before Memorial Day, which this year falls on May 25. However, that would have left nine weeks, rather than the 10 that are necessary, according to Cliff. Thus the need to wedge in a week of play in late-February, early-March. While baseball opened on Saturday, fastpitch softball teams practiced in advance of their Sunday opening games.  

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Wednesday, 25 February 2015 15:23

Before we talk about the big boys in the batting cages, we must address the monster behind the pitching screen.  His batting-practice pitches are hard, straight and true. Except when they aren't. 'He's been coming in all afternoon,' a player shouts to the batter, who holds the shattered wooden bat --- a prized gift from a former Major Leaguer who is now one of his coaches. One pitch, one swing and the barrell of the bat goes one way while the handle remains in the hands of Chesny Young, 22, and an NYO alum. Chesny, who hit .327 in his 44 games last summer and fall as a Chicago Cubs minor leaguer, eyes the bat with sorrow. If he were 10,  you'd want to put your arm around him and tell him everything will be all right. 'I've been using it all winter,' is Chesny's epitaph for his splintered wooden friend. 

The pitcher? Ken Young, Chesny's dad, who has performed nearly every NYO volunteer task possible. Through January and much of February, Ken Young threw BP to his son, Michael Massi, a St. Louis Cardinals prospect who played college baseball at Mercer University with Chesny, and David Reid-Foley, a former Mercer catcher who is in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization. Brandon Thomas, a New York Yankees minor leaguer who played at Georgia Tech, also used the NYO cages, as did Kyle Farmer, who played at Georgia and is in the Dodgers' system. That Chesny, Brandon and Kyle, who grew up playing NYO baseball, came home for their pre-season workouts speaks volumes about their connections to the program.

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Friday, 20 February 2015 12:29

Until the season's first pitch (and maybe even after), they are every NYO team's most valuable player. They are the Team Moms, although there is one Team Dad this year. Without them, there would be no jerseys with each player's name neatly lettered on the back. There would be no hats. There would be no red-white-and-blue bunting or balloons for the Opening Day celebration. Who would solicit team sponsorships? And, heaven forbid, who would arrange post-game concession-stand tickets for the little ones?

'The Team Mom runs everything for the season, but the coaching on the field,' says Paige Fielden. Perhaps it's not accidental that Paige's name, along with Kim Shoup's, appears just below that of baseball commissioner Cliff Barshay in NYO's annual guide. Paige and Kim are volunteer auxiliary co-presidents. It's 9:30 a.m. and 15 degrees outside, but 40 Team Moms have gathered in the Dowis building on a weekday morning to pick up team hats and to get their instructions for the 2015 season, little more than a week away. The day before, 60 attended a like session for the younger NYO teams. The meeting is all business. Questions are sharp and to the point. Paige Fielden presides, but there are plenty of presenters.

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