As the season gets underway this weekend for Catonsville Rec girls softball squads, count on Chuck Kreis being there to make sure the burgeoning youth program is getting off to a good start.
Opening day for the in-house season that concludes June 14 promises to be a special experience for the kids.
For one thing, it will be picture day for all the teams in their new uniforms. Moreover, each batter will be announced over a public address system donated by a former coach.
For Kreis, it's important that the players are enjoying themselves.
Kreis has heard complaints about softball, that it's boring and not as fast-paced as its spring sister, lacrosse, a sport with increasing popularity among youth and high school-aged players in this area.
But the Catonsville Rec softball commissioner insists that softball is not in direct competition with lacrosse for participants.
The two sports are, he said, separate and distinct activities.
And for those who dismiss softball, Kreis has news for them. In his program, which he has been running for three years, kids are enjoying their experiences on the diamond.
"I put a lot of energy into convincing kids it's fun," he said. "But softball is hard, and you have to realize that there's going to be a lot of failure for kids before they learn the skills that make it fun.
"We're very aware of what lacrosse offers. We can't have kids running around like they do in lacrosse. It's a different sport," he said. "But we still try to incorporate a lot of movement into our practices, and that makes it more fun."
The Catonsville Rec softball program is now brimming with 311 girls in four levels: clinic, 10 and under, 12 and under, and 17 and under. It has nearly doubled in size over the past couple of years, leading to the conclusion that Kreis' methods are working.
"You just don't see a guy as dedicated as Chuck very often," said third generation Catonsville resident Pete McDevitt, who coaches his 10-year-old daughter, Amber, on the Catonsville Chaos 12 and under travel team.
"I think I put in about 500 hours a year volunteering for the program," he said. "Chuck puts in three times that, but he puts the program at the forefront and himself in the background. He's a very modest guy, and I respect him a great deal."
According to Catonsville Lacrosse Club President Greg Gentner, the girls lacrosse program boasts 462 participants, although Kreis' softball organization continues to chip away at the old American Indian game's advantage.
Kreis' passion for diamond sports started with years of playing in the Catonsville Rec baseball program and then at Mount St. Joseph in the now-defunct Maryland Scholastic Association.
After that, Kreis played slow-pitch softball on teams sponsored by local bars and restaurants, such as G.L. Shack's and Morseberger's.
When his daughters became age-appropriate for Catonsville Rec softball, Kreis became more involved in the program until he eventually succeeded Larry and Debbie Dobrovolny as commissioner.
Kreis said they did a good job of "laying the foundation" for a flourishing program.
Of course, much of the current success is because of his above-and-beyond efforts.
"You have to be proactive," McDevitt said. "You need someone out there reaching out to the community and pushing to get good people into the organization."
One of Kreis' methods to attract more players has been to present a different version of the sport in Westchester and Hillcrest elementary schools' gym classes.
"We bring a large tennis ball that's bigger than a softball," he said. "They whack that thing around in gym class a few times and really have a good time. We've gotten a lot of kids into our program that way."
Outdoor practices on diamonds follow indoor winter sessions at Catonsville and Westchester elementary schools and Bloomsbury Field House.
Practicing softball skills is essential, especially pitching, far and away the most difficult aspect of the game to master.
Kreis said that even he has difficulty controlling the ball from the circle (there is no mound in softball), so it's understandable why a 10-year-old girl might have a similar issue.
And when a pitcher can't find the plate, there can be too much standing-around time for other players.
That's when Kreis and his coaches take matters into their own hands, opting to speed up the proceedings.
"It's clearly an issue with 10-and-under softball everywhere," Kreis said. "I feel like we've really sold out to the fun side of things by getting a coach to pitch at 2-0, 3-1, 4-2 counts. (Some programs allow five kid pitches or more.)
"I'm sure some people say we're not allowing our pitchers to develop," he said. "But when I see the glazed-over look in the eyes of the fielders when a ball has not been put in play over the previous 20 pitches, I can't help but think that we're not developing pitchers here — we're developing lacrosse players."
Arbutus Middle School student Katrina Bucher, 13, won't be leaving for lacrosse any time soon. She's been hooked on softball since playing for Kreis' team as an 8-year-old.
"That team won the championship that year," Katrina's dad, Matt Bucher, said. "Chuck made a point of making sure there was an article in the Catonsville Times about the team with all the kids' names in it.
"His enthusiasm is infectious. And Katrina made a point of bringing all her friends in the program because of how much fun she had."