Eight-year-old Garett Benko attends around half a dozen White Sox games a year with his father. He's always dreamed of sitting in the dugout and having his name called into the batter's box like his favorite player, White Sox first baseman Paul Konerko.
On Saturday morning, Benko competed in Major League Baseball's Pitch, Hit & Run competition at U.S. Cellular Field along with 23 other participants vying for a spot in the final round at this year's All-Star Game. Benko finally had the chance to leave the imaginary on-deck circle and grabbed a bat at his favorite ballpark.
"It's incredible how much kids get a chance to get out there and get on that field," Benko's father Scott said after the competition. "I can't say enough how well things were run. It's a huge deal for these kids and it's great to see them out there."
The competition consists of three scored rounds, where kids in age groups of 7-8, 9-10, 11-12 and 13-14 years old compete in skill competitions to measure the most raw of individual baseball and softball skills -- pitching, hitting and running.
In the pitching portion of the competition, the girls threw softballs from 35 feet and the boys hurled baseballs from 45 feet at a 17-by-30-inch target that correlates to points. Then the competitors grabbed bats, hitting balls off a tee toward dead center field and getting graded on distance and accuracy. Finally, each young ballplayer engaged in a timed race around the bases from second base to home. The scores from each event were aggregated, and Chicago's regional winner in each age group was crowned.
"It's very unique," said Pitch, Hit & Run representative Matt Engleka, who along with a handful of other officials helped create the rules and regulations for the competition 17 years ago. "Baseball is such a team sport. You talk about breaking it down to the most basic fundamental skills. It's a great chance for an individual to stand out."
The competition starts in backyards. Pitch, Hit & Run is a local effort. YMCAs, youth organizations and baseball and softball organizations applied to host a competition in their town. More than 4,000 organizations held events and more than 600,000 kids entered this season, almost double the participation from when the program launched in 1996.
Once a winner is crowned at the local level, a sectional competition is held. Benko is an Indiana native and advanced past his sectional at U.S. Steel Yard, home of the Gary RailCats of the American Association of Independent Baseball League.
"For the kids, it's a big deal because it's a big stadium," Scott Benko said.
The stadium only got bigger once Benko advanced to Saturday's regional final at the White Sox home park. Engleka said he overheard some of the kids in awe that they were standing on the same field Frank Thomas had once played on.
"There's nothing like it because for some of these kids it's the first time they've ever been to the ballpark, let alone to be able to stand at home plate at hit just like their heroes do for the White Sox," Engleka said. "There's a lot of history here, and some of those kids understand that. It's very unique to be able to connect the kids to big leaguers, current as well as legends."
Eight-year-old Logan Gatliff defeated Benko in the 7-to-8-year-old age group and now has a chance to compete at Citi Field before the Home Run Derby if his score is in the top three of the regional competitions held at Major League ballparks across the country.
"It was really neat to see him compete and advance this far," Logan's father Joe Gatliff said. "To get first place was just unbelievable. So proud of him."
Gatliff bought his son his first mitt and bat when he was 2 years old and said Logan has since flashed natural talent on the diamond. Getting this far, even at Logan's age, is no joke. Current Major Leaguers Eric Hosmer and Chris Parmelee are both previous Pitch, Hit & Run final competitors.
"They put up some pretty strong scores today," Engleka said. "Obviously, the Chicago market is pretty competitive with Illinois and Indiana. It's a strong area for Pitch, Hit & Run with the White Sox."
Ethan Asofsky is an associate reporter for MLB.com.