Drew Alexander, a 7th Grader from Monkton, swings at a pitch during batting practice with his team in the Grades 7-9 league, on the first day of practice for Hereford Zone Recreation and Parks Council, at Sparks Elementary School on Tuesday, April 5.
Drew Alexander, a 7th Grader from Monkton, swings at a pitch during batting practice with his team in the Grades 7-9 league, on the first day of practice for Hereford Zone Recreation and Parks Council, at Sparks Elementary School on Tuesday, April 5. (Brian Krista / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

Make no mistake about it, the first day of practice for Lou Grenzer's team at Sparks Elementary School was not just on the cool side, it was downright cold.

With temperatures falling into the low 40s as the early evening session progressed at the field in Sparks Glencoe, nine of the team's 10 players — ranging from seventh graders to high school freshmen — were too involved with fielding drills and batting practice to take much notice of the early spring chill.

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In addition to Grenzer's baseball team, he also coaches a softball team and is the Hereford Zone Recreation and Parks Council's overall chairperson and commissioner for both sports, so the 44-year-old attorney will be very busy running practices for the rest of the month.

He won't be alone.

A slew of volunteer coaches and their assistants will spend a great deal of time getting players prepared for a 10-game season following opening day festivities April 30 beginning at 9 a.m. at Seventh District Elementary School when an estimated 700 players, plus their families, gather for scrimmages and a cookout to celebrate the annual rite of spring.

"It's probably the biggest gathering of youth sports that we have all year," said Seventh District baseball commissioner Bryan Beyrodt. "There will easily be more than a thousand people there."

Once the season starts, Grenzer, Fifth District Rec baseball commissioner Mike O'Connor, Seventh District softball commissioner Michelle O'Reilly, Beyrodt and Prettyboy Rec baseball/softball Commissioner Lia Arnold — whose programs all fall under the HZRPC umbrella — will be involved on a daily basis organizing and coaching games while keeping parents and players informed about their respective teams.

Beyrodt, who is responsible for 219 participants on 17 teams from coed T-ball (under- 6) to high-school aged players, spent 20 hours a week organizing his the Seventh District program in March.

Once the games begin in May, coaching his sons Andrew, 14, and Stephen, 12, will also gobble up more of the Parkton resident's time.

"I've always been a volunteer," said Beyrodt, director of supplier management at Textron Systems in Hunt Valley. "I was on my community association board (Cameron Ridge) until I started out as the T-Ball commissioner at Seventh District seven years ago. I enjoy organizing. During the season, I'm on the field with my kids Monday through Thursday."

For Grenzer, who played the sport at Dulaney High School under widely respected coach Bud Foster before heading to the University of Maryland, getting his players in game shape and evaluating their strengths and weaknesses is what the preseason is all about.

He not only has to figure out who is best suited for each position, but he'll need to put together a lineup and a pitching staff.

Considering that there is a 50-pitch limit for players at the upper levels, he might need a handful of hurlers to get the job done toeing the rubber from a mound that is 50 feet from home plate (bases are 70 feet apart) for the older kids and 46 and 60 feet, respectively, for grades three through six. The youngest participants are pitched to by their coaches in softball and baseball. The softball bases are 60 feet apart for the older players and 55 feet for the kindergarten-to-second-grade youngsters. Pitches are thrown from either 35, 40 or 43 feet, depending on the grade level.

Because very few of the players on his team did anything baseball-related since last spring in preparation for the current season, Grenzer has his work cut out for him.

"You have to pretty much go back to the basics," the coach said. "You have to find out what they can and can't do."

After infield practice, Grenzer showed the youngsters the proper stance to take when fielding grounders, demonstrating how a fielder's knees should be slightly bent and his eyes following the ball all the way into the glove.

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Shortly thereafter, he took a bucket of balls to the mound and tossed batting practice for a good half hour or so.

He laid in about as many 50-mile-per-hour pitches as he could.

"I threw my arm out before, so that's about as hard as I can throw now," he joked. "It'll be sore tomorrow."

At least the coaches and commissioners are not burdened with grooming and/or lining the fields.

The folks at HZRPC take good care of the diamonds at Prettyboy, Sparks, Seventh District and Fifth District elementary schools.

"They do a really great job," Beyrodt said, mentioning HZRPC administrators Donna King (administrative assistant), Maria Bieneman (community supervisor) and James Jones (activities coordinator), who are based at the organization's York Road office at Hereford High School in Parkton.

With all of the volunteers and terrific parent involvement, and with the support of HZRPC, the Hereford area's youth baseball culture appears to be bucking a national trend when it comes to participation in the sport.

An Aspen Institute study cites statistics on its website from the Sports and Fitness Industry Association showing that the rates of kids' participation in overall youth sports on a regular basis decreased from 44.5 percent in 2008 to 40 percent in 2013.

The numbers were even more telling when isolated for baseball (down 14.4 percent) and worse yet for softball (-31.3 percent).

Some jurisdictions' rec leagues have had to merge with others to remain afloat, according to a story in the Wall Street Journal, but HZPRC seems to be more that holding its own.

"Roughly, we're within two or three percent, of our normal numbers for the last 10 years," said Beyrodt, who worked at Graul's Market to save enough money to buy a car when he was a student at Hereford High. "Except for one anomalous year when we had an explosion of kids signing up for T-Ball, it's been pretty consistent.

"We've even had three kids give up lacrosse this year this year," he said with a chuckle. "They don't usually come back from the 'Dark Side' like that, but they did."

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