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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Wednesday, 18 February 2015 16:13

Imagine you're a 7-year-old. You're standing at first base and your Rookie League NYO teammates occupy the dugout. Someone in the stands shouts your name and you want to look, but the adult on the mound is about to deliver a pitch. The batter makes contact and the ball rolls toward the shortstop. He fields it cleanly, but his throw to force you out at second eludes his teammate and rolls into right field. Your third-base coach signals to you to head for him, where you stop. That's how a like play would have gone in a big-league game.

Once upon a time, however, the Rookie League third-base coach would have turned into a human windmill, signaling you to keep running until you reached home.   The batter also would have kept running and his 'home run' would have been a cause of much celebration. But everyone would have known better. The shortstop might not have tried the throw, believing it was better to hold runners at second and first. And therein lies the difference in how NYO trains its young baseball players today, versus a few years ago.

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Saturday, 07 February 2015 11:59

It's a Wednesday morning in early February and the NYO ball fields at Chastain thrum with activity. Work nears completion on the wood and stone pavilion- pressbox-dugout facility that backs up to Lake Forrest Drive and overlooks fastpitch softball field #4. Red ribbons wrap 59 trees that will come down (all will be replaced with new trees) to expand parking by 93 spaces, although not in time for this spring season. A tripod rests atop the pitcher's mound on the Jane Wilkins Bronco Field. It is used to laser-grade the field as muscular orange machines spread and smooth mounds of infield dirt.

The calendar may say it's winter, but the race is on to ready NYO baseball and fastpitch softball facilities for near-non-stop use until the end of May. It's a race Larry Bennett runs and wins every year. A past NYO coach, board president and chair and current Pony League commissioner, Larry is the guiding light behind all things structural at NYO.

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Monday, 26 January 2015 17:49

By Scott Brandt's count, this year marks the 16th time he's unfolded his chair, pulled out his player-ranking sheets and spent two (usually) bone-chilling days in late January sizing up NYO baseball talent. Saturday morning's raw damp weather gave way to Sunday afternoon's sun-splashed warmth along the third-base line of the Garr Pony Field. Wave after wave of 13 and 14-year-old players took their cuts against a pitching machine, sprinted the basepaths, fielded ground balls and shagged flies.  Next to each player's name, Scott recorded a grade for each skill. In near silence, Scott and the other Pony coaches watched and wrote. In a few days they will use their rankings to select this year's Pony teams.  

All across the Chastain fields and elsewhere, the annual ritual of Tryout Weekend plays out for baseball and fastpitch softball. Because nearly everyone is assured a place on a team, the term 'tryout' is something of a misnomer. Yet, it's part of NYO's Circadian rhythm. It's the weekend that signals a new season is upon us.Carter Smith, 13 and an eighth-grader at Sutton Middle School, totes his bat and other gear and awaits his turn. His tryout number, written with a Sharpie and pinned to his tee-shirt, flutters in the breeze.  If Carter's nervous, it doesn't show. He's an NYO lifer, having started in Small Ball. He plays second base and has an older brother, Jay Paul, 15, and a younger brother, Alex, 10, who have preceded and followed him along the NYO path.


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Friday, 23 May 2014 11:03

Three things happen to people when they get older. They move on and leave the past behind. They hang around telling 'boring stories of glory days,' to borrow from Bruce Springsteen. Or, if they're lucky, they find a place like NYO. The musical question the Beatles posed ('Will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm sixty-four?') has been answered. I am 64. NYO won't let me get old. Its people are the reason.

There's Cliff Barshay, the baseball commissioner who still coaches his daughter's fastpitch softball team, Theta Beta Delta. It's one thing to set the standards. It's another to live them. Cliff does both. Fastpitch named Cliff Positive Coaching Alliance coach of the year for its 2014 senior league.

There's Brian Raley. the Fastpitch commissioner whose team lost in the senior league championship game. Yet, Brian sings the praises of the winning team's shortstop, Lisa Waltuck, who played her final NYO game. '(We) made the mistake of hitting about 10 shots to shortstop Lisa,' Brian wrote in an email, 'and lost 10 to 1. (Lisa) was flawless. (It was) a great way to end her NYO career.'

There's Drew Moyer, coach of the champion Phillies in Majors baseball and supervisor of upper-league umpires. In his year-end email to parents and players, Drew writes: 'I could go on forever about how great this spring has been. As the boys and families move up to bigger and better baseball, please . . . be sure to support the next group of little Phillies. Our Phillies alum are always welcome in our dugout.'

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Sunday, 18 May 2014 00:00

It's a Saturday morning and Leo Rose seems to be everywhere on the Jane Wilkins Bronco Field. He wears a red 2004 Christopher League NYO tee shirt with the names of that year's participants --- the special-needs players and their 'buddies.' This is the final Saturday of the 2014 spring season, and there are pictures to be taken, trophies to be handed out and awards to be made. Leo, the Christopher League commissioner, is a busy man, but he has his family to help him. Jennifer Rose, Leo's wife, makes sure everything runs smoothly from her spot in the dugout. On the field, their children, Elizabeth, a 29-year-old attorney, and Leo IV, a 26-year-old financial analyst, work with players.

For 15 years, the Rose family has spent Saturday mornings in the spring and fall making the dream of baseball come true for young people who otherwise might never throw or hit a baseball. 'If it's Saturday, it's Christopher League day,' says Leo IV who, like his sister, made it back to NYO on spring break when they were in college. A generation of NYO players have also benefitted, working as 'buddies' to the Christopher League participants. 'The buddies come to know a child just like them, even if that child may look a little different,' explains Jennifer Rose.

Two 'buddies' --- Sam Moss and Chad Davis, baseball players at Riverwood High School --- will receive the Nick Napolitano award for their years of service to the Christopher League. Leo Rose will sing the praises of Sam, Chad and all the volunteers ('I just send out and email and people show up,' Leo says), and he will do what all good leaders do. He will step aside and let the spotlight linger on others.

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Friday, 09 May 2014 11:56

Children become baseball players on the Austin Armstrong Field of Dreams. Once a bumpy sandlot diamond surrounded by slippery earthen slopes, the field has been the showcase of NYO baseball since 1992. It's where 9, 10, 11 and 12-year-olds hit their first fence-clearing homeruns. It's where young pitchers and batters face each other for the first time. Yet, there is something snug and comforting about the field. The bowl-shaped slopes and the ballpark seats that nestle into them focus everyone's attention on the field, on the children and on the game.

To play on the Austin Armstrong Field of Dreams is to come of age at NYO. If the field had a persona, it would be that of a Mom, eager for her child to move on, but wishing the innocence of childhood could linger. On this Mother's Day we pay tribute to a field that gave birth to a new era of NYO.   

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Sunday, 04 May 2014 18:26

Don't be fooled by the team names --- the Lucky Leprechauns, the Orange Crush, the Red Hot Dragons and the Bomb Pops --- 'like the ice cream,' according to one parent. All four NYO Rookie Fastpitch Softball teams are going at it on nearby diamonds. The players, ages 7, 8 and 9, play with a focus, intensity and skill that should lay to rest forever the once-upon-a-time putdown boys used to use about the way someone threw the ball. These girls come to play.

In his NYO directory welcome, commissioner Brian Raley cites 'not only a rise in numbers from last year, but as deep and talented a group of Senior players as we have had, including eight players who pitch for their varsity high school teams.' It's hard-nosed ball, even if the girls wear protective  face masks when they are in the field. Yet, there's a sweetness not always found on the baseball side of NYO, at least to someone who has spent two decades working with boys.

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Friday, 02 May 2014 20:33

Allan Gottlieb turned 55 Saturday, and he spent his birthday doing something he's done for the last 21 years. He coached an NYO baseball game, and he did it in his own unique way. Once a season, he allows his players to choose where they want to play. His Major League team, the Cubs, has eight 12-year-olds and they were invited to tell the coach where to play them. Win or lose (the Cubs won, 11-7), this is a Coach Gottlieb tradition, and it doesn't matter whether a regular-season title is on the line. Once, according to another coach, it was, but that didn't deter Allan Gottlieb. This year, the Cubs have already clinched the regular-season title.

Through more than two decades, Allan Gottlieb has helped NYO evolve into the program it is today. All five of the Gottlieb children have played for their dad, and  there are too many players, too many teams to recount, His players learn the mechanics of the game, but they gain something more. Abe Schear, a close friend who has coached with Allan, recalls when the Christopher League (then called the Challenger League) was in its infancy. 'Allan made arrangements to have all his players be buddies (to the special-needs players), insisting that his team be scheduled (to play) at any time other than the Christopher League games.' 

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Thursday, 01 May 2014 16:17

Like so many brand-new college graduates, Tisha Mahon headed toward Atlanta. A 2013 sports administration major in exercise and sports science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, Tisha dreams of coaching a women's collegiate fastpitch softball team. An outfielder with a .302 career batting average at UNC and speed to burn (57 stolen bases in 70 attempts), Tisha has brought her knowledge and love of fastpitch softball to NYO.

Once a program that relied heavily on dads and the occasional mom to guide its teams, NYO has benefited in recent years from an infusion of coaches in their 20s and 30s. Many are single, played baseball or fastpitch softball in high school or college and work well with kids 10 to 15 years younger than they are. 'Thirty minutes (with Tisha) and our kids said she was awesome,' proclaims Brian Raley, who snagged her to assist with the Shake-n-Bake, a Senior League squad of girls who are in the eighth grade and up. How Tisha came to NYO and what she has discovered makes for a familiar story.

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Wednesday, 30 April 2014 13:38

Yet another NYO alum has received collegiate baseball acclaim. Blake Stevens, who honed his skills on the NYO diamonds, has been named Pitcher of the Year by the Southern Athletic Association. Blake, a right-hander, has led the pitching staff of the Birmingham-Southern College Panthers, among the top college teams in the country, with a record of 33-10.

Blake has put together an eye-popping year at Birmingham-Southern just as his former Marist High School and NYO colleague, Chesny Young, has at Mercer University. He has led the Southern Athletic Association in earned-run-average (0.75) and strikeouts (47) and has held opponents to a .169 batting average, according to the college, which also announced that manager Jan Weisberg has been named SAA coach of the year.

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