Final Update to 2023 RCR Points Drive — A Visit to the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy

Photo by Warning Track Power
Photo Provided by Warning Track Power (Drew, Section 222, Warning Track Power)

A final and very big “thank you!” from DonH, Section 222, and me to everyone who donated to the 3rd annual RCR Points Drive. Along with members of two Facebook groups (Nationals RCR Codes and Diehard Nationals Fans), TalkNats readers and commenters contributed a total of a whopping 177,218 points. The points were exchanged for a mountain of Nats and baseball swag, which was then donated to the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy (YBA). 

A significant number of you also contributed in other ways, including monetary donations and giving me thoughtful items earmarked for the Academy.

A few weeks ago, Drew Shrager, season ticket plan representative for both Deuces and me, met us at the Academy with the swag. We were treated to a great guided tour by Nick Sussman, Senior Director of Academy Programs. While we were there, workers were laying new turf on the Academy’s three fields – one of which now has a Curly W etched into centerfield!

Baseball Field – Photo by Warning Track Power.

A huge thank you also to Drew, who not only facilitated a novel way to transfer and exchange the unprecedented amount of RCR points we raised, saving us hours of tedious accounting work, but also provided a few additional fun and unusual items to donate, including a set of pickleball rackets, Nationals baseball caps, and t-shirts. (Yes, pickleball is everywhere, and the Youth Baseball Academy now has a few portable nets.)

Pickleball Photo by Warning Track Power

A huge thank you also to Drew, who not only facilitated a novel way to transfer and exchange the unprecedented amount of RCR points we raised, saving us hours of tedious accounting work, but also provided a few additional fun and unusual items to donate, including a set of pickleball rackets, Nationals baseball caps, Chicago Cubs shirts, and t-shirts. (Yes, pickleball is everywhere, and the Youth Baseball Academy now has a few portable nets.

We focused on getting the kids things they can wear, use, or play with, rather than tapping a bobblehead up and down.

Before the tour began, we provided the items we purchased to the Academy staff. They expressed deep appreciation for the gifts and told us how meaningful they are to the scholar athletes who are chosen to receive the items throughout the year. (More about that in a moment.)

As many of you know, I’ve had the privilege of volunteering as both a mentor and baseball coach at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy for the last seven years. My favorite two days of the week are when I head to the Academy to coach the kids and meet with my current mentee.

Don’t let the name Baseball Academy fool you. The YBA is nothing at all like baseball academies in the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico, which have a laser focus on all-things baseball. This Academy, situated in a sparkling facility near Fort Dupont Park, is devoted to providing opportunities to underserved communities in Wards 7 and 8 and supporting scholarship and nutrition, as well as sports. The YBA uses baseball and softball for fun and as a way to prioritize four core values to apply to life, not just sports: Be Outstanding – Be Healthy – Be a Leader – and Continue to Learn.

Baseball and softball prowess (or even interest in these sports) is not a prerequisite to acceptance into the program. Rather, the sports are tools for developing character and important life skills. With families taking the lead, the Academy helps contribute to the well-being of the young people, both girls and boys in 3rd through 8th grades, who attend its core after-school programming.

Scholar athlete alumni often return to the Academy as invaluable role models to current 3rd through 8th graders. Many are now in college and continue to excel and inspire. Some are even playing baseball and softball at their respective universities.

At the Academy, alongside three baseball/softball fields and well-equipped indoor training rooms, there are classrooms, a kitchen, and quiet rooms for doing homework after school before the fun starts. The Academy supports the scholar athlete or scholar artist (of which there are several) in whatever endeavor they wish to pursue. A whole variety of once-a-week enrichment classes are offered, including chess instruction (which my mentee attends) and cooking/nutrition classes put on by DC Central Kitchen. Past enrichment instruction has included karate.

I’m continually inspired by the values of the local community. During COVID, after a local librarian did a wonderful job virtually reading library books and encouraging future reading, we provided modified virtual baseball instruction as part of the Books and Baseball program. At their homes, young children wadded up a sock into a ball, threw it into the air, and practiced catching it. Along with Academy staff, volunteers on the virtual feed cheered them on by name every so often.

Shortly after the instruction started, I noticed a boy about 1 ½ years old walk into the living room where his sister was practicing catching. She immediately set aside her own practice, and for the rest of the session focused exclusively on her brother. The student had become the teacher as she helped him catch the ball/sock. As we do with in-person practices, we gave shoutouts to the children after the instruction concluded. My shoutout was to this precious girl. I told everyone how impressed I was that she helped teach her brother instead of focusing on herself. She beamed, and for all subsequent sessions she always waved to me when virtual Books and Baseball started.

A few years ago, while exiting my car in the parking lot adjacent to the Academy, I heard an extremely loud chant, which I described soon thereafter as a “joyous yell,” repeated over and over again: “Let the kid’s play! Let the kids play! Let the kids play!” From the parking lot overlooking the upper field, I witnessed a group of girls on the baseball/softball field laughing and lobbying a member of the Academy staff to allow them to keep playing just a little longer. How can one say no to that?

Softball Field – Photo by Section222

It’s worth noting that baseball and softball instruction is provided to a broader group of girls and boys than those who also attend the Academy’s core after-school programing. One night a week for most of the year, and two nights a week during the summer months there is the aptly named non-competitive PLAY baseball (in which I coach), as well as PLAY softball instruction. The Academy also hosts competitive HUSTLE baseball and softball teams. In both the PLAY and HUSTLE programs, we strive to win. But regardless, we win, or lose, with grace.

Because of the large number of children attending, there are often at least six simultaneous games taking place in various corners of the baseball fields. Once, last summer, I oversaw the 7–8-year-old field and pitched to both team’s batters. One of the batters, whose skills had not developed as much as others, but heart and determination were evident, hit a very soft tapper in front of the plate.

The non-pitching (but fielding) pitcher beside me was likely the most talented player skill-wise on the diamond and was fleet afoot as well. He scooped up the baseball, but instead of easily tagging the batter out, he pretended to always be one step behind in the race to first base. The batter ended up with an infield single and everyone cheered.

After the play was over, I quietly went over to him, put my arm around him, and whispered that I saw what he did, commending him for his sportsmanship. At the conclusion of the game, during Team Time, I gave him a shoutout for his good sportsmanship and helping others. (Those who get verbal shoutouts also receive swag from the array of RCR marketplace items obtained from your donations.)

Usually, we provide more details as to what exactly the scholar athlete did to exhibit the core values of the program, but out of respect to the batter this was an exception. However, when the boy’s father came to pick him up following dismissal, I made sure to compliment him in front of his dad, providing full details and thanks for his son’s leadership. Both were flushed with pride.

My most-prized autographed baseball comes from a young man I mentored who gave me a signed baseball as a gift following his 8th grade Academy graduation ceremony. I was especially touched when his mother told me he practiced his autograph for an hour before he signed the ball to get it “just right”. The baseball now has a prominent place on my shelf at home.

Photo by Warning Track Power.

If you’d like to learn more about volunteering at the Academy as a mentor, check out Nationals Youth Baseball Academy seeking volunteer mentors, which links to an application for opportunities as a mentor, coach, or tutor. But if you decide to try it out, be prepared to lose, badly, in a game of Uno, Connect 4, or ping-pong. (I know this from personal experience.)

Thank you again for your support of the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, as well as your RCR point donations. These deserving young women and men show us all how the game is meant to be played.

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