John Fitzgerald founded the Baseball United Foundation in 2006 and serves as the organization’s Executive Director, moonlighting around his day job as an award-winning filmmaker and healthcare communications consultant. He helped found the first 18U Irish Junior National Baseball Team and has served as Team Ireland’s General Manager. He directed The Emerald Diamond, a 2006 documentary about baseball in Ireland, produced Playing for Peanuts (2009) and teamed up with the Hudson Valley Renegades to produce the first video broadcast of a baseball game on Twitter, nearly 70 years to the day after the first live televised baseball game in 1939.
Inside Pitch: So your group has learned a lot about how to optimize coaching baseball through your work?
John Fitzgerald: When we started, we just wanted to support what was happening in Ireland. We quickly realized that we were learning a lot about how to teach the game to kids that had never played before. And that eventually helped us to develop our program, Small Ball, for beginning baseball players in the U.S.
IP: What’s your personal background in baseball?
JF: I played high school baseball and briefly in college, I know the game and love the game. When I coached my son’s tee-ball team, I had to look at it from a completely different perspective. A lot of coaches were being told—and still are—that if your team will run to first base every time they hit the ball, by the end of the season, you’ve done a great job. I heard that and I was like, “Wow, okay, we can aim higher than that. We can do better than that and we have to.” And most of these youth players in Ireland have no frame of reference—they’ve never watched a game on TV or picked up a bat.
That was the first thing that we learned, that the things we were teaching in Ireland were very valuable and could be taught to kids in the U.S.
IP: How do you get people interested in baseball in a country that’s dominated by interest in other sports?
JF: It’s not always easy because kids don't grow up around the game in Ireland. There aren’t many baseball fields and, even though it’s available on television and the internet, baseball isn’t top-of-mind for most Irish kids. But Ireland has a great sports culture and a rich history of playing and watching sports, so we can use that as a starting point to introduce our game to an audience of kids who may want to try something new and different.
IP: You mentioned you had a very good understanding of the game before, but how much more baseball did you have to learn to develop the best way to introduce the game to kids with literally no concept of it?
JF: I had to sit down and develop a curriculum. We’re going to start rolling it out across the country with recreation departments and different municipalities. In order to do that, we have to come to them with an adaptable plan- indoors, outdoors, six weeks, 12 weeks.
The first thing we do is take the kids on a tour around the bases. We have them identify the bases as they walk around. Then we let them run because the sports these kids are familiar with—soccer, rugby, lacrosse—involve a lot of running. Baseball? You hit. And when you play tee-ball, you hit off a tee. That has to be one of the most boring things to do in sports. So we start our practices with running and we end with running, because it’s fun for the kids.
We’ll take out a kickball and we’ll let them play and run around. We'll use that to teach tag ups, force outs, base running, things like that.
I understand coaches that want to have team infield/outfield practice with youth players, but good luck. They’re not going to catch it. They’re not going to throw it. We have found that players seem to pick up defensive and baserunning fundamentals really well playing kickball.
Some of the kids aren’t going to get the hitting, throwing or the catching within a few weeks, but they’re going to at least understand what’s happening around them and that helps instill an interest in the game. And what we hope to do is create baseball fans from that. We want these kids to come back, we want to raise retention rates year over year. And then down the road, even if these kids didn’t become ball players, they at least understood the game and maybe they’re going to become baseball fans.
IP: Any coaching hacks you have made with throwing or hitting?
JF: None of it is revolutionary. We’ll just have them throw at a target. We won’t just pair the kids off and have them throw to each other because that’ll just break down. The big thing we do with hitting is we teach them how to hit a moving ball. We’re doing underhand toss on day one. We use a tee, but as a tool only. So if a kid is really struggling we don’t just run to the tee, we make the size of the ball bigger and try some other things—take a practice swing, swing as hard as you can, hit a beach ball, hit a dodgeball. And when all else fails, we’ll bust out that kickball. And if the kids get to kick that ball and run the bases, they’re not looking at that as a punishment, or that they couldn’t do “the real thing.”
IP: Seems like there are a lot of ways that kickball can teach kids baseball…
JF: We see it time and time again. We see kids making tag plays in the infield. Kids knowing where to run, where to throw the ball. Even if they can’t yet do it, they’ll come up throwing and they’ll know what a force out is, just from playing a little bit of kickball and having the concept explained to them for five minutes one day. And we teach them little awareness things along the way: what a foul line is, what a foul pole is, that sort of thing.
One of the things that was running through my head when I developed this curriculum is “How can we teach this game to a five-year old such that if he’s not a top player at age 15, he’s still going to want to play?” I know not every kid is going to get a college scholarship, but that doesn’t mean you need to throw in the towel at age 14 or 15.
I’ve seen town ballgames and local games where 12-14 year olds are having real trouble with basic throwing and catching with any consistency. And you can see why a lot of kids give up the game at that point, all because they didn’t have access to coaching to learn the basics at a young age.
IP: What’s a long-term goal of yours if all continues to go well?
JF: We’d like to continue to grow our Small Ball program. In 2023, the program will be available to recreation departments in the U.S. and we will also have a digital certification course so parents and coaches can learn how our coaches teach the game to beginners. We hope that the program can help boost player retention rates in areas where the game might be struggling.
For more information, visit baseballunitedfoundation.org.