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Long Ball Program motivates teens

Durham Athletic Park helps keep struggling teens on the field
July 26, 2010
DURHAM, N.C. -- William Tracy may be just the kind of youngster founders of the Long Ball Program had in mind.

The pilot program at historic Durham Athletic Park is the first of what organizers hope will grow to 160 cities, teaching participants how to play better baseball with added emphasis on academic success. Minor League Baseball provides jerseys, equipment and umpires while local businesses, the Durham Bulls and Duke University are helping out.

Tracy, a 15-year-old rising sophomore at Charles E. Jordan High, said he couldn't try out for his high school team because he was academically ineligible.

Long Ball has been playing only since May, but Tracy said it has already helped motivate him academically.

"My goal is to be eligible to play for Jordan [in the spring]," he said. "Baseball is a motivator for me. It helps me want to do my homework because, if I don't, it can take me out of the lineup."

Tracy is playing a year up for the "Orem Owlz," one of four teams for the 16-18 age group. The eight teams -- four are for 13-15 year-olds -- are named for Minor League clubs. The Owlz, "Lake Elsinore Storm" and "Salem-Keizer Volcanoes" play with the "Durham Bulls" in the older league, while the "Wisconsin Timber Rattlers," "Lakewood BlueClaws," "Mahoning Valley Scrappers" and "West Tenn Diamond Jaxx" play in the younger group.

Teams have 15 players, and each plays a nine-game regular-season schedule with a single-elimination tournament Aug. 14 at DAP.

The league's mission is to foster "growth in sports, education and life skills." There is heavy emphasis on academics, with players submitting report cards and agreeing to a weekly two-hour tutoring session in any subject in which they receive a "D" grade.

Pat "Tootsie" Nobles, a veteran staff specialist at Duke's Center for Civic Engagement, runs the show.

"It's mostly for inner-city kids, but everybody is welcome," she said. "We want to teach them about different careers inside of baseball, not just as players."

Nobles got into coaching in 2009 when Durham Parks & Recreation officials said they weren't able to sponsor a 16-18 league. She and other players' parents kept the Durham All-City League alive last season with free use of city fields before Minor League Baseball stepped in.

The players have had clinics with professional players and umpires, and 35 went to a Major League Scouting Bureau tryout camp at USA Baseball's National Training Center in Cary.

Tony Leak, one of the organizers and an assistant coach at Hillside High, coaches the Bulls.

"We're not teaching baseball from scratch, but most of our kids' mechanics have been messed up," Leak said. "We try to teach them the correct way."

Another volunteer is Daniel Rosoff, a rising junior outfielder at Brown University with a double major in economics and neuroscience.

"I read about Long Ball in the Raleigh News & Observer," said Rosoff, who was set to play for the Statesville Owls in the Southern Collegiate League before suffering a foot injury. "I saw they played at the DAP, and the league made a connection between baseball and academics, so I decided to volunteer."

Like Tracy, Jarodrick Shaw -- a rising senior at Southern High -- hopes to use the league to prepare him for life after high school.

"I want to take baseball as far as I can," said Shaw, an outfielder for the Volcanoes. "I can get more looks here. When I started last year at Southern, I hadn't played in five years. Hitting was the worst part of my game, but now it's the best part."