White Sox youth baseball partnerships pay dividends
Club provides uniforms, instruction to five Chicago-area boys and girls leagues
If one wandered across Keystone Park in River Forest, Ill., on a recent July evening and stopped to watch the girls' fast-pitch softball game, it would have quickly become apparent that both teams were wearing different versions of White Sox uniforms.
This is the first year that the White Sox have partnered with a handful of youth leagues in Chicagoland, providing uniforms and instruction. The support allows leagues the ability to invest in field improvements or provide financial assistance to kids who would not otherwise be able to play.
The leagues that partnered with the Sox include Oak Park Youth Baseball/Softball League, River Forest Youth Baseball/Softball League, Downers Grove Youth Baseball League, Elmhurst Youth Baseball League and Orland Park Youth Baseball League. The Oak Park organization has a 33-year history of organizing fundraisers for the league in conjunction with the White Sox. It was the first youth league to parade around Comiskey Park in 1980 and has maintained the tradition every year since.
On a warm July summer night, as the River Forest girls' 14-and-under fast-pitch softball team is competing against Oak Park in the championship game, Oak Park president Bill Sullivan stands next to the dugout reflecting on the first year of the White Sox partnership.
"The White Sox are helping provide uniforms to 1,500 players," said Sullivan, watching his daughter compete for the Oak Park team wearing a 1983 replica uniform. "With that support, the league was able to invest in a great deal of new equipment this year, as well as field improvements. This is a great partnership that is helping our league."
In the dugout across from Sullivan, head coach Tom Cargie's River Forest team wears the current White Sox uniform, featuring the black jersey and white logo on the front. Cargie is a lifelong Cubs fan, but he appreciates the sponsorship.
"It's cool. It's a neat idea. I really wanted those '83 uniforms, though," said Cargie, whose best player is a rising 8th grader named Maeve Nelson, who has the velocity of a top-level high school pitcher.
The White Sox provide baseball and softball clinics to each of the leagues they sponsor, plus video training advice available on league websites where manager Robin Ventura offers tips to the young players. But for the kids, perhaps the best part of the partnership is the chance to visit U.S. Cellular Field with their teammates.
"The turnout at the park this year for the parade around the field was fantastic," said Sullivan, who joined a very large group of Oak Park coaches, players and parents in the parade around the perimeter of the field prior to the White Sox-A's game on June 1. "Parents really appreciated the White Sox allowing us to do that, and the kids were able to see the dugout and the players and coaches. It was fun."
Each of the teams in the Oak Park and River Forest leagues trot onto the field wearing their White Sox uniforms for 16 regular season games and playoffs.
"I think it's an absolutely brilliant program in terms of presenting the Sox to kids at a very young age and getting them to associate with them early," said Christy Ross, mother of Paige, who was playing on the Oak Park 14U team vying for the championship. "My husband is a huge White Sox fan, and I was raised a Cubs fan, although I like both now. It's a fun mix in our household. It's been a lot of fun for my husband, who helps coach. I think when you get that dynamic of girls with their fathers, it's a good combination."
A few days later at McCollum Park in Downers Grove, the boys' 10-and-under championship baseball game took place. Liz Moravec, whose son Hunter was playing in the game, has also seen a change in her household this year.
"Since the White Sox started supporting the league, Hunter now wants to watch all the games," said Moravec. "He has the schedule on the fridge. It's a big change from previous years.
"The boys really look forward to going to the ballpark now, and the league really plays it up big, which is great. They loved walking around the field and then going up to the fast-pitch section to see how hard they could throw the ball compared to the professionals."
Nine year-old Hunter says he loves wearing the White Sox uniform.
"When I got to walk around the field that the Sox get to play on, I saw a lot of the coaches and high-fived them," said Hunter, whose family attends about 10 games a year. "It's fun to go out with my teammates and walk around the field and see where the players are actually playing. My favorite player is Paulie [Konerko]. We switch around positions, but I like to play first base like him."
Young teenager Ben Laurich's brother Patrick also played in the championship game.
"When I walked around [U.S. Cellular Field] for the first time, it was an amazing experience for me," said Ben. "I got to stand on the actual field of my favorite baseball team and see what it looks like, how far they have to run, how far they have to hit it to hit a home run. It just amazed me."
Jeff Behland, coach of one of the boys' 10-and-under teams, has seen and heard the impact of the Major League support this year.
"We hear a lot of chatter at practices with the kids trying to be like their favorite White Sox players, hit like them, throw like them," said Behland. "It's fantastic for the league that the White Sox supported [us], because it allowed us to better take care of the field and make some improvements. We got some new equipment, brand new helmets. It helps."
Given the feedback from coaches, parents and players associated with each league, White Sox senior vice president of sales and marketing Brooks Boyer can certainly view Year 1 of this groundbreaking program as a success.
"We are proud of our longstanding support of Chicagoland youth baseball and thrilled with how the program worked this season," said Boyer. "We hope to grow our current partnerships and build new relationships for next year. The White Sox youth baseball program is about helping young kids learn and enjoy the greatest game on earth."