By Tyler King
Canadian Baseball Network
My amateur baseball career lasted one season. It wasn’t pleasant.
I was seven-years-old playing tee-ball, except I couldn’t hit the ball off the tee. I’d just keep hitting the rubber stand and the ball would simply fall straight down onto the mat. It got so bad that the parents would just tell me to go to first base (strikeouts didn’t exist - if they did I would have racked up my fair share).
It was a frustrating experience as a child, but if we’re being completely honest the fact that I was so absolutely god-awful was not why I left the sport.
The real reason? It was painfully boring.
There seems to be a massive, unfortunate culture shift in organized youth baseball (and youth sports more generally) away from a “fun-first” approach, instead opting for a hyper-competitive environment focused on winning and personal performance.
Rather than seeking to instill a deep passion for the game, the goal of many youth programs is now solely concentrated on breeding professional athletes. Not only is that an unrealistic proposition, but logic follows that it is also a counter-intuitive one. It’s a lot less likely a young person will dedicate their life to the game if they don’t enjoy playing it.
This is particularly true among younger kids - for example those in the tee-ball stage who struggle to connect with a stationary ball ...
But despite this widespread change in culture, there are still a few people who believe that keeping baseball fun is the best way of not only retaining kids in the game, but also creating better athletes in the long-run.
One individual who has seemingly kept that approach is Denny Berni. After playing over 300 games in the Boston Red Sox system, Berni returned to his native home, Etobicoke, Ontario, and founded Pro Teach baseball - an elite baseball training academy that he continues to run while also coaching the U-18 Etobicoke Rangers.
After speaking with Berni for just a few minutes, it’s obvious that his teaching philosophy is different; it’s more ... positive. He seems to embody everything that corporate youth sport is not. At the forefront of that philosophy is his own undeniable love of the game.
“I was done [my pro career] in 1993,” Berni told me while on a recent visit to the Pro Teach training facility. “I could have done other stuff to play, but I came back home and had my degree in broadcast journalism, so I thought I was going to use that. When I was handing out my resume for that stuff, I started teaching kids and teams baseball and it started to grow.
“When I started there weren’t too many places doing this sort of thing. Now there’s tons ... We’re lucky we have places like this. Apart from working, it’s fun. I get to teach kids baseball.”
When he first started Pro Teach, he was forced to run his programs out of local gyms and batting cages. Even with the 10,000 square foot indoor facility that he has today, he still seems to maintain a more personal, grassroots teaching approach.
“I taught Tony,” he shouts as he points to one of his younger instructors. “Tony was on my [Etobicoke] team, he played for me. Now he’s a coach for the Rangers. It’s all reciprocal. All these guys I taught they’re going to surpass me and carry it on. It’ll be an Etobicoke thing.
“I guess I couldn’t have been that mean to them,” he says laughing.
Although he attempts to create a more positive atmosphere, Berni recognizes how the overly competitive culture shift is turning more and more potential baseball players away from the game.
Instead of having kids as young as six-years-old playing in organized, scored games (which is ridiculous seeing as they can barely count) Berni believes that adopting a more simple approach can help improve player retention.
“In baseball, what you should be doing when you’re little is playing catch, playing wall ball, doing that stuff. Kids don’t have to play [organized games]. My one kid never played tee-ball, but I played catch with him and now he’s in here all the time. And his skills are going to get better.
“My six-year-old knows so much more than I did when I was 15. The knowledge is there. Does that mean we’re going to make pros? No. Because the most important thing is they have to have the passion to actually want to keep doing it.”
Fostering a passion for baseball in the youngest kids is where Berni finds most programs fall short. Although he admits that the task isn’t easy.
“That’s the toughest thing [about baseball], it can be a little bit slow for little kids.
“I can only speak about my kids ... But the first time my boy played tee-ball, I remember him saying to me ‘Why do we have to play the outfield? Why is it one inning in the in-field and one inning in the outfield?’ I kept talking to him and trying to explain it and I look over and he’s not even there. He’s already taken off and he’s on a play-swing, on the swing set. So I’ve already lost him ... I said to my wife ‘tee-ball should be played in a tiny little area, and it should be three or four kids vs. three or four kids.”
Some leagues have actually adopted a six-on-six format and smaller diamonds for those younger age groups. The results, Berni says, have been fairly positive. But he also believes they can be doing more.
“The games, tee-ball, are less time with the ball, less time doing stuff. And at the end of the day they’re boring ... I think they need to have fun little mini-games on a small field, then come in here. They don’t need to play anything on a real big diamond. In here they’re hitting balls, taking ground balls, throwing at targets, and maybe that’s what you have to do for a while, until about nine or 10.
“I think we need to have a little bit more ingenuity about how to make this game fun [for the younger kids]. Play it on a little tiny field, and less kids so that everyone’s hitting - cause that’s all they want to do.”
Because the pace of tee-ball can be so slow, Berni has actually seen a recent trend of parents enrolling their younger children in Pro Teach programs instead of signing them up in organized leagues.
“We get kids that are six, seven, and eight in our classes who love it, and I ask the parents where their kids play and they say ‘well we don’t play baseball. We just come here from November until May and maybe a couple years down the road they’ll play’.
This way, Berni explains, the kids are constantly hitting and doing the things that make baseball fun at a young age. It’s less about instruction and more about action.
Rather than sitting in the outfield during a tee-ball game and picking at grass, or waiting impatiently for their turn to bat (at which time one hopes they make contact), the activities at Pro Teach are more pro-active.
Who knows, if Berni’s program had been around when I was growing up, maybe even I’d still be playing.
At the very least I’d probably be able to hit a ball off of a tee ...
Follow Tyler on twitter: @tylerjoseph108
This article is part of a series profiling amateur baseball programs across the country