All-Star week youth competition fuels dreams

July 9th, 2021

DENVER -- All-Star Week’s first public event was the ideal opener for a week celebrating the best of baseball. It also fits as the baseball version of that age-old Carnegie Hall joke: How do you get to Coors Field? Practice -- pitch, hit, and run.

The couple-hundred ballplayers filling the fields at Metro State University in downtown Denver on Thursday were there to participate in the competition that makes winners out of those that focus on fundamentals. The early round of the Pitch, Hit, and Run competition for 7- to 14-year-old boys and girls gets kids excited about mastering the basics of the game, and the success those youth athletes find on the field fosters a lifelong love of the game that bodes well for baseball.

“It's important, because you're getting kids at an entry level,” former Major League All-Star Harold Reynolds said from the top of the stands overlooking the field for the Junior Home Run Derby. “You pitch, you hit and you run. That's what you want to do at this level.”

Reynolds has been helping out with the program for about 15 years, and he never tires of seeing young kids getting excited about the fundamentals.

“When I was a kid, it was ‘Punt, Pass, and Kick,’” Reynolds said. “That really helped, as a kid, for me to get involved in football. As a young person now, these are the three essential things [you've] got to do.”

The competition can be intense, with players throwing six pitches, taking three swings off a tee, and running from second base to home plate once to qualify and advance.

“You got to be locked in,” Reynolds said. “And that's good for the kids. They get a feel for what they have to do.”

For teammates Rozlynn Muguerza and Lily Miller, 13 and 14, respectively, the day was an eye-opener that helped fuel their dreams of playing ball at the highest level.

“This is a great experience,” Miller said. “Meeting some other kids and learning different ways of how to do things. Like baseball hitting, instead of softball.”

Teammates and Pitch, Hit and Run competitors Lily Miller and Rozlynn Muguerza.Owen Perkins

Miller and Muguerza moved through the phases on the various fields one at a time with hundreds of other girls and boys, but it was the final competition that drew the crowd -- the Junior Home Run Derby. They needed to do some quick adaptation from swinging at softballs in their comfort zone to hacking at hardballs and swinging for the fences in the newest phase of competition.

“I felt like I definitely could have done better, but I did pretty good for my first time,” Muguerza said.

It was Miller’s second competition, and she hopes to keep pitching and playing first base through college-level competition -- inspired by role models like Jennie Finch, who Miller hopes to see at Play Ball Park in the coming days, and even pioneers she wasn’t as familiar with like Natasha Watley and Lauren Chamberlain, two greats of women’s softball who were on hand to share their love of the game.

“Selfishly, we miss being around the game, being on the dirt, so it's just exciting all around to be here, be the energy for the kids,” said Chamberlain, a four-time All-American who hit a record 95 home runs in her career, winning a national title before playing for Team USA.

Watley is not shy about using her own background as a four-time All American, two-time Olympian, and a former member of the Pride as a platform to promote the sport she loves.

“Mark my words, we're gonna have a softball All-Star Week like this at some point,” Watley said. “That's why we're doing this -- building the game up at the grassroots level so by the time these guys are our age, they can be participating in something like that.

“If you get everybody to buy in and invest at that level, then eventually you're going to see what everybody wants for our sport: to have a successful and long-lasting pro league and professional opportunity for these girls.”

In past years, hundreds of thousands of boys and girls competed in the Pitch, Hit, and Run competition across the country, with regional finals held in big league ballparks and the finals traditionally held at the All-Star Game. This year, the finals will be at the World Series, giving more time for more boys and girls like Miller and Muguerza to ignite their passion and set their sights on pro leagues.

“That would be amazing,” Miller said of that dawning possibility.