Take Me Out of the Ballgame

Associate editor Brian Koonz joins baseball camp participants in a stretch exercise in the outfield before a game

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s soon as I felt the pop, I knew I was in trouble. First base never seemed so far away as it did that day at John Delaney’s baseball camp.

Delaney, the fifth-year head coach of the Quinnipiac baseball team, runs an annual summer camp for local children on the Mount Carmel Campus. This year, 54 boys signed up to polish their diamond dreams and make new friends.

My assignment was to grab a glove from my closet and join these aspiring baseball stars on the field. Delaney and his summer camp coaches teach participants fundamentals of the game and strategy. They also oversee relay races — the wheelbarrow challenge, anyone? — and lead warmups and stretching. I was there to participate.

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Associate editor Brian Koonz throws a baseball while on one knee during pregame drills at Quinnipiac baseball camp

Young at heart

Brian Koonz thought it would be fun to be one of the boys participating in Quinnipiac’s summer baseball camp. He was the oldest by several decades.

“For the first couple of years, we did a lot of drills, but now we just want the kids to have fun,” said Delaney. He was selected as the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference Coach of the Year in 2018 after guiding the Bobcats to a 16-8 record, the program’s best season in the MAAC.

I arrived that first day as the middle-aged outlier with a notepad, a Quinnipiac T-shirt and the look of someone desperate to fit in. After stretching on the grass, we formed a half-dozen relay race lines.

The wheelbarrow challenge was first. Everyone in my line paired up and as I looked around, I heard a voice in the desert: “I’ll be your partner,” said a confident kid with honey highlights in his brown hair.

The rules were simple: One person walks with his hands — as fast as he can — while the other person holds his legs like a wheelbarrow. Twenty yards later, they turn around and switch spots. As we rounded the turn, I glanced over at the competition. We were right in the thick of things.

Propelled by adrenalin and cheers, we crossed the finish line first. The boys all celebrated like they had just won the World Series. In some ways, while the shine of summer was still in full bloom here, I suppose they had.

But the highlight at baseball camp — without fail — is playing the game that everyone loves. Sometimes, it’s old school hardball. Other times, it can be the unpredictable flight of a Wiffle Ball.

On the second day I visited camp, Wiffle Ball became my swift and unflattering demise. There were no special accommodations for my ego. I was up. My mighty swing produced an infield roller and I attempted to leg out a single while extras straight out of “The Sandlot” watched in horror.

Halfway to first base, the pop and resulting pain in my calf erased any notion I could compete with these kids. I hopped over to a nearby golf cart to see Kayla Roddy ’17, a certified athletic trainer assigned to the camp. Roddy pressed and prodded my leg before driving me to the training room for further examination.

“How old are you?” she asked once we got settled. “Fifty- three,” I replied. “In fact, today is my birthday.” Roddy pulled out some crutches and told me I likely had a strained calf muscle. “You fit the profile,” she told me without hesitation. And just like that, with an efficient and eviscerating four words, the destruction of my dignity was complete.

This abrupt ending was disappointing because the morning had gone so well. Flanked by two boys at fielding practice, I stood between the fringe of the infield and the expanse of the outfield.

The kid on my right wore his allegiance for all to see. The interlocking “NY” on his cap was the timeless logo of the New York Yankees. “I always go to Bat Day,” he told me. Naturally, I was curious which Yankee signatures were stamped on his bats: “Oh, I have Aaron Judge. And Didi Gregorius, too.”

The boy on my left didn’t have any discernible loyalties. So I went with the obvious teams for baseball fans in Connecticut — the Yankees, the Boston Red Sox and the New York Mets.

One by one, he shook me off like a pitcher working with a new catcher. Finally, I gave up and learned the Baltimore Orioles had won this boy’s heart. “The Orioles were my Pop-Pop’s favorite team before he died,” the boy said. “Now, they’re mine.”

Sharing the national pastime is the connection that galvanizes generations. Baseball is a simple game, really. Two teams, nine innings, three strikes and you’re out. It’s the memories that matter most — a seat next to your Pop-Pop at the ballpark, a Little League jersey with a dry cleaner’s name on the back, a catch with your best friend at summer camp.

Even an old guy with a bum leg knows that.

Associate editor Brian Koonz sits on a nurse's table with a pack of ice taped to his right calf

Minor injury

It’s all fun until somebody gets hurt, as they say. While running out a single Koonz strained a calf muscle and was carted off the field. A QU athletic trainer fixed him up good as new.