Speaking with Frank Lo Piccolo of the Brooklyn, NY based Our Lady of Grace/Gravesend Athletic Association (OLG/GAA), you would think that the fate of youth baseball – or any other youth sport for that matter – lies at the mercy of parents who just “don’t want to take the time out to do things like this anymore.” He refers, of course, to the time consuming chores of driving kids to the field for practice or a game, combined with all that goes with supporting kids playing in local leagues, not to mention the travel teams that everyone seems to gravitate toward.
Frank’s Our Lady of Grace/Gravesend Athletic Association, only one of several youth sports organizations within the Greater New York Sandlot Athletic Alliance (GNYSAA), exemplifies the highest dedication and commitment to teaching young players in the right way for the right reasons. County Baseball Publications caught up with Frank at the GNYSAA’s Annual Dinner held at Russo’s on the Bay this past January 22.
As the GNYSAA.org website explains, “In 1961 the GNYSAA, became the successor to the Journal-American Sandlot Alliance which was established in 1945 by New York Journal-American sports editor Max Kase.” In the half-century since Mr. Kase and GNYSAA came into existence, countless numbers of young people have benefitted from the opportunities to play organized baseball in the greater New York area. In fact, we can safely say that these visionary alliances share with Little League International the roots of organized youth baseball generally.
In 1939 Carl Stotz began Little League International with three local teams in Williamsport, PA. Max Kase followed with his Journal-American Sandlot Alliance six years later, and Marius Bonacci started the Babe Ruth League in Hamilton, New Jersey six years after that.
Teaching kids to play youth sports, particularly baseball, in the right way for the right reasons, forms the premise of more and more recreation programs, training facilities and local organizations across the country. The GNYSAA has operated by this mantra since 1961. Continuing from the GNYSAA website, the Alliance’s mission focuses on serving “the children of New York City and the Greater Metropolitan Area through baseball while promoting an attitude of professionalism and fair play.”
The array of leagues and local organizations comprising the GNYSAA distinguishes it from other umbrella groups in youth sports. As an organizing body the GNYSAA defines a unifying theme for healthy competition at the youth level, while leaving each constituent organization to maintain its own individuality. Although this dynamic also exists in such large, recognized groups as Little League International, PONY Baseball, American Ameateur Baseball, Babe Ruth League, and Rebuilding Baseball in the Inner-city (RBI), GNYSAA teams, leagues and tournaments interact and support each other more as a family than a disconnected panoply of youth programs throughout the country and the world. Attendance at the aforementioned Annual Dinner conveys that sense more than any other awards ceremony or annual event that we have experienced.
The five boroughs of New York City and adjacent areas host competitive tournaments in which young people can compete without traveling hundreds of miles each weekend in the spring, summer and fall and absorbing thousands of dollars in costs for lodging, meals and registration fees. Besides the GNYSAA All-Star game held each year at MCU Park in Brooklyn, home of the New York Mets’ Class A affiliate Brooklyn Cyclones, the New York Memorial Tournament features the best of the best in the 12u, 14u, and 16u divisions, and the Raymond F. Church Memorial Tournament gives 18u division players their yearly place in the sun. In 2009 the GNYSAA reinstituted the Hearst Sandlot Classic as the Greater New York Sandlot Classic.
For its part, Frank Lo Piccolo’s OLG/GAA makes up only one of the many leagues in Brooklyn alone. Among the New York Baseball Federation and Metropolitan New York Amateur Baseball League, and their members, such as the Parade Grounds League, Marine Park League, Westchester Baseball Association and others, the OLG/GAA participates in the Marine Park League. Now in its 56th year, OLG/GAA provides more than 400 young players with baseball experiences to last their lifetimes. “We started in 1960 with less than 100 kids,” Frank says.
As much as Frank bemoans the non-involvement of 21st century parents, parental and volunteer commitment have formed the bedrock foundation on which the OLG/GAA has rested for all of its 56 years. “When we formed the Our Lady of Grace League, the precursor of the OLG/GAA, lots of guys stuck around after their kids were done playing; in fact, 5 or 6 of them are still involved today.”
“We balance the team rosters based on ability; that way we try to maintain parity. We even switch players from one team to another in order to keep balance in the league. Some parents don’t like this balancing act, but we are very attentive to preventing teams from getting slaughtered, when the kids on both sides don’t want to play in that kind of atmosphere. We’re there for the kids, not the parents.”
That noble sentiment notwithstanding, Frank Lo Piccolo knows the importance of getting parents’ involved and keeping them involved. He spoke excitedly about Start Smart, the new program from the National Alliance for Youth Sports (NAYS), which accomplishes that objective. We are starting The “Smart Start” program for 3-4 year-olds this spring; and we have high hopes for it going into 2015.”
Parents’ attitudes or not, OLG/GAA-Gil Hodges LL, has produced some of the most talented ball players ever to graduate to the Major Leagues. Those names include SS Richie Aurelia, P John Franco, OF-1B Lee Mazili, P Frankie Rodriguez, C Benny Distefano, P.Frank Simonara, P Jason Marquie, and SS Kevin Baez.
“We want the kids to have the opportunity to play baseball, for the fun of it. We want them to a safe place to play, to come and enjoy the game of baseball. There are times when I wish I could have a league without parents, because of all the pressure the kids have on them, mostly from the parents. I can understand why kids lose interest and walk away from the game when they turn 13 & up. Hopefully, the growth of the Start Smart program will make a change for the good in that.” County Baseball expects it will, especially with dedicated people at OLG/GAA and GNYSAA leading the way.