By Josh Belanger
The American Travel Baseball Alliance (ATBA) was launched in January of 2021 to provide a cost-free resource for coaches, athletes and parents to help learn, network and share ideas on a national-scale.
Founder Rob Hahne is involved in just about every aspect of baseball, both locally and nationally. Hahne is the director of the Northern Virginia Travel Baseball League, one of the largest travel leagues in the country with over 450 teams, and chairman of the youth committee with the American Baseball Coaches Association (ABCA). He also sits on the local county athletic council as the baseball chair, manages his hometown high school team and is involved coaching internationally with MVP International.
Through his life-long career in baseball, Hahne continues to learn new things about the game and has built countless relationships that have positively influenced his coaching, leadership and overall outlook on life. The ATBA was founded on principles to provide those same opportunities to every coach.
“There was a need to have an umbrella organization where league leaders, organizational leaders and coaches from the travel and independent baseball world could connect, network, collaborate and share information, content, ideas and resources,” Hahne said. “We're excited to officially launch it.”
The ATBA is a nonprofit organization that offers a no cost membership. The backbone of the ATBA is their website (ATBAlliance.org) where all their information is posted and shared with like-minded baseball coaches. The Alliance website also offers something for young athletes, high school recruits, parents and even the casual baseball fan.
“We thought that it was important to tear down that wall or that barrier that may exist with any skepticism. We're here to help people help each other, if you will, and hope to be some small part of helping that happen on a local, regional and national level.”
The website features monthly educational contributions from some of the best baseball minds in the country. Each month, contributors will post articles, videos and other resources on their blogs that cover a multitude of baseball topics for all ages and levels.
Some of the contributors include USA Baseball’s Andrew Bartman, ABCA’s Ryan Brownlee, Georgia Gwinnett College head coach Jeremy Sheetinger, JMU’s pitching & associate head coach Jimmy Jackson, former professional player Brandon Guyer and Washington Nationals’ physical therapist Seth Blee. Other topics include expertise on catching, infielding, recruiting, parenting, umpiring, mental approach and coaching. The ATBA will also feature a monthly Zoom interview with a college coach, starting this month with TCU skipper Jim Schlossnagle.
The website also contains interactive pages for potential college recruits, providing map links to every college baseball program website and staff email in the country. The ATBA has also partnered with a free recruiting service to provide recruiting profiles and a national database available to every college coach in the country at no cost. Countless links further provide additional resources and references for the learning to always continue.
“I would encourage everybody to just spend half an hour here and there going through the site,” Hahne said. “There's just so many resources that can help everyone.”
Coaches can get involved on two levels; becoming a member themselves or registering their organization or league. Benefits of the membership include networking opportunities with other coaches and leagues, a monthly newsletter and resources available on the website and more. The Alliance is also looking at ways to provide national purchasing options for coaches and teams to save money on equipment, uniforms and other items.
Hahne is excited about the future of the Alliance and sees the potential power of working together.
“I think the ideas and the collaborative efforts are going to take us places that we are not even aware of yet, which is probably the most exciting part. As we collaborate on things and as we share ideas, we can spread those concepts into regions and into localities to help them grow and promote the game.”
To check out all the great resources of the ATBA or to become a member, visit the home page at ATBAlliance.org.
By Josh Belanger
It was a season unlike any other for the 412 teams this fall in the NVTBL. Facing a global pandemic and new safety protocols, coaches and players took on the challenge of youth sports in 2020 and overcame its obstacles with patience and perseverance that resulted in one of the most rewarding and important seasons of their lives.
Baseball never felt better this fall for the over 400 teams who participated in the NVTBL. After a cancelled spring season and a limited summer slate, the league was back in full capacity this fall as diamonds across the region were once again filled with smiles and cheers.
To keep players, coaches and parents safe at practices and games, the league implemented a number of safety protocols including but not limited to keeping players spread out on and off the field, teams not sharing baseballs and disinfecting them when they leave play, having umpires socially distance behind the pitcher’s mound and home plate area and closing the bleachers for families unless a mask is worn. Self-screening documentation also had to be completed and collected for every coach and player before any team event.
The coaches faced an uphill battle developing players while managing the COVID-19 pandemic, safety protocols and a new sports environment where Clorox wipes are being used more than a fungo. It was a challenge unlike any other, but was faced head on by coaches league-wide with assistance of a “COVID” coach.
With additional hoops to jump through, the league recommended each team add a staff member to help manage the waivers and compliance of safety protocols to allow coaches to focus on the players. For many head coaches, these COVID coaches became their favorite person this fall.
Despite new league safety protocols, the game remained the same. When the umpire yelled “Play ball,” the outside world became mute. For those few hours, the game provided a distraction from the scary reality occurring worldwide and domestically and allowed kids to be kids for the first time in months. It’s the reason why this season felt more important than any other to so many.
Greg Crawford is highly involved with the NOVA Royals organization as a general manager as well as coaching junior varsity and 10u teams. This season had a huge impact on him and his players being able to get a sense of normalcy back in their lives and return to playing the game they love.
“This season in many ways meant more to me than any other just what we have gone through as a country,” said Crawford. “To have the ability for two hours to go out and play baseball and block everything else out in the world meant a lot and just being able to put a smile on these kids faces. I think the thing that was interesting was just how much baseball meant to these kids. In many ways, this was their only opportunity to get outside and to be around other kids.”
The biggest obstacle for Crawford, other than finding a method of keeping a mask on a 10-year-old, was adjusting to social distancing while coaching. It was tough for him to not give a high-five after a nice play and he felt the impact of its absence.
“That's part of coaching, that's part of the human connection. And I think that it's easier to tell a 15-year-old we're not going to be doing that. They get it. But a nine-year-old with a smile on their face after they just got a game-winning hit or made a big play is running off the diamond and they want that affirmation. It's kind of heartbreaking at times but over the course of the season they understood it.”
It took some time for players to also get accustomed to the new way of doing things in 2020, especially for the younger age groups. Many got more comfortable with the protocols and mask wearing as the season went on, though it remained difficult to keep their distance from their teammates after a nice play.
The “air” high-five became a popular alternative while some got more creative with “cleat-fives.” Regardless of their method, it was an adjustment that was worth getting used to.
“It was kind of hard to wear a mask and not fist bump someone when they did a good job,” said Jeremiah Maita, who plays on Crawford’s 10u team. “We are definitely grateful to play. We had to spread out and wear a mask and socially distance. It was hard but we had a lot of fun this year.”
For families, it meant everything seeing their child laugh and enjoy the game with their friends again. Many reached out to NVTBL’s director Rob Hahne to thank him and the league staff for leading the way for the return of youth sports and organizing a structure where teams can continue to play and stay safe. Each family had a unique story and perspective on the importance of what baseball brought to them this fall.
“Thank you for helping give my boys some normalcy. Baseball was an escape from the four walls of our house. I got to see my kids smile and laugh. I saw some baseball highlights too,” wrote one family.”
“We moved here a year ago. Without the NVTBL, my kids would have had a really tough time meeting new friends in a new area with remote school. I’m eternally grateful they had the chance to play baseball this spring and summer. It’s made all the difference in them getting acclimated to the new area. Thanks again for making it work. As you know, it’s much much more than the game.” wrote a father.
“Thank you beyond words that you tried so hard to give our boys the opportunity to go out and play baseball. It was a bit of sanity and normalcy for them and us, as we are dealing with the current everyday madness,” wrote a mother.
“My 80-year-old parents were able to watch their only grandson play baseball another season and that meant so much to all of us,” wrote another family.
“It looks and feels like baseball and was an escape on a lot of levels. I think the season has meant more to these kids than any other,” said Crawford. “In many ways we're closer now than we've ever been because we got to have this experience together. I am proud of them and I thought the season itself was a big success.”
Despite the distraction of doubleheaders and night games, the reminders of the current reality remain. Umpires are out of position, huddles are spaced out and beach chairs are an extension of the bench. The future and how long we have to manage the COVID-19 virus remains uncertain, but the baseball community in Norther Virginia has proven that it can come together to allow the game to continue to be played.
“I think that there's a lot to be commended for,” said a 12u coach. “We've proven as a collective community that baseball is one of those things that we can get done in a safe manner. We were operating in a tough environment and doing so safely so I think that gives us every reason to feel confident that we will be even better when we're operating in a steadily warming and more inoculated environment.”
As teams head into the off-season with a season of protocols and safety procedures under their belt, the spring season and the outlook of local youth baseball is viewed with more optimism. For now, the future looks a bit more bright. And that feels good to say.
By Jenn Skinner
Then a few weeks later I was watching the Little League team from our very own town win the Southeast Regional Championship in Georgia to guarantee their place for our league’s first appearance in the Little League World Series. A huge crowd of our community members jammed into a sports bar to watch our boys on ESPN. I wasn't really all that into it. Whatever, man.
Then my son and I drove the three hours up and back in one day to Williamsport to see the boys play at Lamade Stadium. WE HATED IT.
Yep, last summer there was traveling and there were tournaments and there was Little League and there were friends sitting right next to us sports bars watching games on tv. We might have even shared a plate of nachos. What a weird world it was, right?
When so much that we enjoyed last summer got canceled this year, most days I tried to look at the whole situation with a glass half-full approach. It was a great time to reevaluate our busy schedules, to spend some slowed-down, quality time with our family, perhaps to contemplate how much we wanted to continue to commit our family’s time and money to athletic endeavors.
And I did that. Through March. And April. And May. And June. And parts of it were wonderful and meaningful. Still, as July crept closer with no definitive change in world events, I tried to tell myself that maybe it would be good to continue our sports-free days of deep introspection and familial bonding. Do you know what I concluded?
NOPE. NO SIR. NO MA'AM. THAT'LL BE QUITE ENOUGH OF THAT, THANK YOU.
Enter the savior of summer in Northern Virginia, the hero we'd been waiting for: the Northern Virginia College League.
Due to the relentless work of a few good men who worked with state and local government officials we've got a summer college league right here in Northern Virginia. A tireless group of interns and committed coaches have worked throughout the month, five days a week, to safely bring the boys of summer back to us. And I could not be more appreciative of their efforts.
Some are playing against or with some of their high school classmates again. Some who rivaled each other in travel ball as little kids, now find themselves as teammates. For our family there is not one team that doesn’t have a player we know or a name we recognize. Each time I’ve shown up at a game, I’ve run into yet another family that I might not have seen since Little League. It’s like a big ol’ family reunion – at a distance.
There are theme nights like Beach Day and Jersey Day. Interns have produced a livestream for those who can't make it to the game in person. There are kids who I watched swing at a tee who have turned into men with facial hair. We’ve cheered them as we did when they were little, watching them hit towering homeruns, make leaping catches in the outfield, and popping up to throw out runners stealing on the base path.
Our area is saturated with baseball talent and we are so lucky to have them show off their skills right here in our local fields. For players from Little League to High School who aspire to play at the next level, there is no better classroom than to sit in the bleachers and watch the way these guys approach the game.
There are just about two more weeks to get out there and watch these teams play. Be smart and respectful of the comfort level of the other fans. Wear your mask in the bleachers if there are too many people there to adequately social distance. Set up your chairs along the fence using the markers for spacing.
And, hey, here's a thought. Try real hard to stop talking about the virus just for an hour or so. It’s important and it’s real and it’s not over, but give your brain a break. Just for a little while, you might have a chance to forget about all the darkness in the world right now. Because as we learned from Field of Dreams, "This field, this game - it's part of our past. It reminds us of all that once was good and could be again."
Thanks for the reminder, NVCL. We needed it.
Check out the remaining schedule for the NoVa College League HERE.
Here you will read about the various leagues and organizations that are affiliated with the ATBA and the impact they have on their community.