This year's Little League baseball and softball season is under way — and in the Northeast, some teams and players have taken the field again, despite losing vital equipment to Hurricane Sandy. Many donations were handled by Pitch In For Baseball, which gathered used and new gloves and helmets for the players.
In February, the organization announced it would provide equipment worth $150,000 to baseball and softball players in the New York region. And as its founder, David Rhode, tells NPR's Michel Martin on Tell Me More Wednesday, he saw a need for Pitch In For Baseball to help give kids a sense of normalcy after the disruptions brought by Sandy.
While many relief and charity aid focuses on humanitarian needs, Rhode says that "it's very difficult and sometimes non-existent for these sort of quality-of-life, extracurricular activities, because communities and families sometimes have to prioritize — and kids are asked to sacrifice in a lot of situations."
Founded in 2005, Pitch In For Baseball was originally meant to help children around the world play baseball. But the devastation brought to the U.S. Gulf Coast by Hurricane Katrina made it clear the group could also help American kids, Rhode says. They saw a similar need in the aftermath of Sandy, as leagues asked for help.
"After a storm or after some other event, your life is turned upside down," Rhode tells Michel. "And sometimes for kids that we've met, the most important thing on their mind is really, what about my game on Tuesday, or what about my glove? And so we think it's great to give kids that simple activity, the simple sense of joy of going out and playing."
Stella Smith, 12, is one of the players who got a boost.
"I've been playing softball since I was seven," she tells Michel, "but I also played tee-ball when I was I like four or five years old." Stella now plays on the Island Park Little League Softball team in Island Park, N.Y.
"Could you tell us why it's so important to be able to play and have adults like David try to help make sure that kids can play?" Michel asks.
"It's really important in my point of view," Stella answers, "because we need our friends. And as much as we need food and gas and all the things that adults have to worry about, kids worry about it, too. And like, I know it doesn't seem like that, but we do. And the most important thing to us is that if our families are OK — and just being back on the field makes us feel like we don't need to worry about that anymore."
After the storm hit, Stella's family spent a couple weeks with an aunt. A stay in another family's basement followed. The Smiths recently moved back home, she says.
Asked by Michel if playing softball is a break from the struggles of the past several months, Stella says, "It is."
"It feels like nothing can go wrong," she says. "My feelings can't get hurt, because everyone's included. And it's just, everyone is so great. And I just love my whole team."
Stella says her team played its first game a couple weeks ago, against Long Beach. The Island Park kids trailed 7-1 early, and lost the game after their comeback bid was turned away, 7-6. To Stella, it was a good first outing.
"It felt amazing," she says, "because I actually felt like I could be part of a team, and call myself part of a team."
Like a true team player, Stella also reeled off her squad's sponsors: "Nassau Financial Federal Credit Union and Jewelry by Steven.com."
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. Coming up, I have some thoughts on redemption. Who gets it and who doesn't? That's my Can I Just Tell You essay and that's in just a few minutes.
But first, we want to tell you about somebody who's come up with an interesting way to help kids. Spring is here and for a lot of us that means grabbing a chair and heading to the park and taking in a game or two at the local field. So what do you do if for some reason you don't have enough equipment or not enough for a whole team? That's where David Rhode comes in. He founded the organization Pitch In For Baseball. It collects gently used equipment so that kids all over the U.S. and around the world can play ball, and David Rhode is with us now from Philadelphia.
Thanks for joining us.
DAVID RHODE: My pleasure, Michel. Great to be here.
MARTIN: Also with us is Stella Smith. She is a softball player from Island Park, New York. Her family just moved back home after having to leave their home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, and we're pleased that she's with us as well. Stella, thank you so much for joining us.
STELLA SMITH: You're welcome. Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: You know, they say you shouldn't tell a lady's age, so is it OK if I say that you're 12?
MARTIN: OK. Well, you hear that I had her permission to share that. So David Rhode, let me start with you. How did you get the idea for Pitch In For Baseball?
RHODE: Well, it was 2005. I had recently sold a business. I was looking to do something that made a bigger impact in the world, and at the same time I was coaching my two boys in baseball. And looking around I could see that the stuff that was piling up in my house and in my garage, if it was anything like other folks around the country, then there was a lot of gear that could be put to better use, and so in effect that was the genesis of Pitch In For Baseball right there. If we could connect people with stuff, with folks that needed it, we could make a difference.
MARTIN: So 2005 is the same year as Hurricane Katrina. Were the two related?
RHODE: Sure. It was happenstance. The organization was founded during the summer, but our first organizational meeting was September 20 of that year, about three weeks after Hurricane Katrina, so even though the original focus of the organization was meant to be helping kids overseas play the game, it seemed that there was so much energy and so much desire to help kids here in the United States that our focus went to the Gulf Coast region, and that's where most of our first donations took place.
MARTIN: I want to hear about that in a minute too, but I do want to get to Stella. So, Stella, how long have you been playing softball?
SMITH: I've been playing softball since I was seven, but I also played t-ball when I was, like, four or five years old.
MARTIN: And so when Hurricane Sandy hit, I know that that had to have been hard and scary. Where were you staying? I know you couldn't stay in your house, so what did you do?
SMITH: Well, for the first two weeks we stayed with my aunt in Massapequa and then we found a basement that we could stay in with my dad's friend's wife and her two children, so we stayed there until just the past month or so when we moved back in.
MARTIN: Wow. And what happened to all your stuff?
SMITH: Well, actually, all my stuff is upstairs, so I got to save most of it, but my brother and my mom and my dad lost everything, so I knew I had to stay strong and be supportive of them, so...
MARTIN: But it wasn't as - yeah. That is hard, but what does it mean to you to be back playing with your team? Is it a time when you can kind of put all the bad stuff away?
SMITH: It is because it feels like nothing can go wrong. My feelings can't get hurt because everyone's included and it just - everyone is so great and I just love my whole team.
MARTIN: Well, David, what about that? I mean you can imagine where some people are saying, after an emergency or after something goes wrong, what kids really need is food, shelter, you know, and a place to go to school. What do you say to that?
RHODE: We agree 100 percent that, you know, baseball has to have its right place and certainly in our situation we've been involved with natural disasters, not by choice but because people contact us and ask for assistance. So our first priority of business is making sure all of those humanitarian needs are met, but what we've experienced, first in New Orleans with Hurricane Katrina and all the way through Hurricane Sandy is it's very difficult and sometimes nonexistent for these sort of quality of life, extracurricular activities because communities and families sometimes have to prioritize and kids are asked to sacrifice in a lot of situations and we really don't think that that's fair.
And after a storm or after some other event, your life is turned upside down and sometimes for kids, the kids that we've met, the most important thing on their mind is really, you know, what about my game on Tuesday, or what about my glove? And so we think it's great to give kids just that simple activity, the simple sense of joy of going out and playing.
MARTIN: I understand that initially, you thought that your efforts would mainly go to places that are already baseball crazy - like the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico. But I understand that you found that that's actually not the case.
RHODE: Yeah. So we found that some of the greatest needs and some of the greatest interest in pitching for baseball and in playing baseball is from folks that are in Africa or folks that are in Eastern Europe - places that are just discovering baseball or playing for the first time. So from our perspective playing a role in that for us is a tremendous privilege. We love seeing the pictures and the videos and hearing the stories of kids playing in a particular area for the very first time.
MARTIN: How many countries have you served so far, do you think?
RHODE: It's just north of 75 countries.
MARTIN: Seventy-five countries.
MARTIN: Wow. I know that you have to make sure the teams actually have a place to play. But do you also make sure that they have somebody to play against?
RHODE: Well, I mean ultimately in many situations it's a league or it's a program, so there may be four, six, eight teams that are starting at a given point in time. Or we do want to understand that so it could be a school-based program where we are helping a given team at a given school, but there are six schools in their community - for lack of a better term - that they'll be playing against. So we just want to learn about them, understand their story and make sure it's going to fit in. But in some situations it's as simple as a teacher at a school or a teacher in a town or a coach in a town that wants to teach baseball and playing competitive games isn't the first thing on their mind, it's really getting a kids' exposure to the game.
MARTIN: And what about someplace close to home, like in the New York area, the northeastern area, that was affected by Hurricane Sandy? Would you just automatically know where the teams are that are probably washed out?
RHODE: Well, we have a number of wonderful strategic partners. We work very closely with the folks at Little League International; we work with Babe Ruth baseball and other sort of national organizations. So if a league that lost something would contact the home office - if you were - so Little League in Williamsport, Pennsylvania, they would refer them to us. In other situations it simply is word-of-mouth, and there are folks that would just search online and they'll want to find out how they might be able to get equipment, so they will do any kind of the search and we come up number one or number two in any kind of an Internet search for making a donation of baseball equipment.
MARTIN: And Stella, when did you play your first game? You've played your first game already, right?
SMITH: We played it a couple of weeks ago and it was against Long Beach.
MARTIN: Do you want to tell me how you did?
SMITH: We did good for our first game. The score was 7-1 for a while, and we made a comeback and ended it with 7-6.
MARTIN: Hey, that's respectable. What was it like to get out there for the first time after not having been able to get together with all your friends for so long?
SMITH: It felt amazing, because I actually felt like I could be part of a team, and call myself part of a team.
MARTIN: And Stella, before we let you go, is there something you could - if you wouldn't mind - from your perspective, could you tell us why it's so important to be able to play and have adults like David try to help to make sure that kids can play?
SMITH: It's really important in my point of view because we need our friends. And as much as we need food and gas and all the things that adults have to worry about, kids worry about it too, and like I know it doesn't seem like that, but we do. And the most important thing to us is if our families are OK, and just being back on the field makes us feel like we don't need to worry about that anymore.
MARTIN: So, Stella, what's the name of your team?
SMITH: It's just Island Park Little League Softball. We are sponsored by Nassau Financial Federal Credit Union and Jewelry by Steven.com.
MARTIN: Yes ma'am. I was going to say could I - what do I say? Go Island Park?
MARTIN: All right. Good luck for the rest of the season. Go Island Park?
Stella Smith is a softball player. She's 12 years old and she, as she told you, is from Island Park, New York. She plays for Island Park Little League there. She was kind enough to join us from home. And David Rhode is also with us. He's the executive director of Pitch In For Baseball, that is a non-profit that takes donations of gently used and new equipment and provides it to teams around the world. And he was kind enough to join us from Philadelphia.
David Rhode, thank you so much for joining us. Stella Smith, thank you too.
RHODE: Thank you.
SMITH: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.