With baseball season under way, it was the boys of summer who took the field April 23 at Tom Varn Park in hopes of advancing for a chance at a trip to Yankee Stadium for this year's MLB All-Star Game.
The opportunity for local youths to have that dream came courtesy of the Aquafina MLB Pitch Hit & Run competition, hosted by the Hernando County Parks & Recreation Department. Thanks to the hard work of parents and volunteers and a generous contest from Major League Baseball, athletes from ages 7-14 have the chance to defeat local challengers to advance to a sectional round.
The road started at Tom Varn Park when champions were crowned in the four age divisions. Twelve would move on by the end of the evening with winners from each age group qualifying for the sectional round at Knology Park in Dunedin on May 18.
These 12 will challenge others from around the Tampa Bay area in hopes of advancing to a regional competition that has yet to be scheduled. This yellow brick road ends, hopefully, in the dugout at Yankee Stadium in mid-July.
One of the most impressive performances came from the 13- to 14-year-old division. Brandon Brosher, a homeschooled seventh-grader, took home two of the four titles while competing in one of the most populous groups. His all-around crown (913 points) was spurred by a dominant victory in the hitting event (507).
"I feel like I could have done a little better in the pitching event, but overall, it just really hasn't sunk in yet as to how well I did," Brosher said. "I am just really excited about what's still to come and the opportunities that I have."
This was Brooksville's first time hosting a competition that has become a mainstay around the country in MLB's push to promote the sport to America's youth. Previously named the Pepsi Pitch Hit & Run, the competition allows a select group of 16 youths to compete on the field at the annual All-Star Game.
Mike Walker, director of the county parks and recreation department and a former pitcher for the Cleveland Indians, received an e-mail about the event. He passed the information along to Lou Bermudez, who soon became the local coordinator.
"We expected to get around 50 kids for this thing when we started putting it together," Bermudez said. "After a hectic night, 97 different kids took the field."
Many of the kids that competed are involved with some sort of local youth baseball through Hernando Youth League, Dixie League or AAU. When Bermudez began promoting the event, these are the places he went first with fliers.
One of the athletes that caught on that way was 9-10 division champion David Jones (1,042 points). Jones, a 10-year-old player in the Spring Hill Dixie League, saw the advertisement and was excited.
"It was a real challenge," Jones said. "There were about 25 other kids that I was going against, and I really love to be challenged that way."
J.P. Gates, 8, is a pitcher/outfielder for the state-ranked Brooksville Bombers AAU club. He joined the rest of the Bombers in getting into the event. After winning the 7-8 division, he knew this was something he wanted to continue competing in for as long as possible. The chance to meet your heroes is no small thing.
"I want to do as good as I can because there's a chance I could meet A-Rod (Alex Rodriguez), Big Papi (David Ortiz) or Hideki Matsui," Gates said. "I am still real surprised that I got this far."
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