The batter for Hollister Team Three delivered an impressively solid line drive. As he reached first base he was greeted by the San Juan Bautista Elites cornerman, who was all smiles and seemed happier about the hit than the batter was.
Yes, if you are looking for the thrill of victory or the agony of defeat, the last place you are going to find it is at one of the Junior Giants games now being played Saturdays at San Juan Bautista’s Abbe Field.
In this non-competitive version of baseball, runs are not counted and there are no winners or losers. There are no pressures or any real expectations, other than to have fun. The players are more likely to walk off the field with a new friend rather than a medal or a trophy.
“It is non-competitive because we are just trying to get kids familiar with the basics of baseball,” said Anthony Ponce, head coach for the San Juan Junior Giants organization. “This allows the kids to bat the ball and run the bases the same way they do in regular baseball. We don’t segregate the kids by age or skill. We switch positions in the field all the time. We switch up the batting order every inning. We are trying to teach fundamentals so when they decide to join competitive teams they are ready.”
The Junior Giants program was founded in 1991 and has 90 leagues across Northern and Central California, Oregon and Nevada. Sponsored by the San Francisco Giants Community Fund and offered through the Hollister Recreation Department since 2014, the program is free to children ages five to 14.
“It is great for parents who sometimes can’t afford to put their kids in sports programs,” said Tina Garza, recreation service manager for the city of Hollister. “All of the equipment you see out here is provided by the Junior Giants for free—the bats, the balls, the bases, the t-shirts, the tee-stands—everything. It allows families to come together to play and watch without worrying about paying.”
In the simplest version of the game, one team fields their entire team while the other team runs through their entire batting order. Each team’s coach pitches to their own players. Should a young player have a problem hitting the ball, using a tee-ball stand is allowed. One adult serves as the catcher.
Outs don’t end innings and every batter gets a chance to circle the bases. The last batter brings home all the players and the teams switch positions. They keep switching sides for three or four innings and the game lasts about an hour.
At the end of the game, the two teams form a line and pass each other, bumping elbows in a socially distanced way. No cheers, no tears—just happy kids.
Ten-year-old Josiah Morales has been playing baseball since he was 3, starting with tee-ball. This year he participated in both Little League and Junior Giants.
Asked what the difference was between the two, he said “I like them both, but sometimes in Little League they boss us around. When I play baseball, I just want to have fun. In Junior Giants, nobody ever yells at you. ”
Junior Giants Ambassador John Shamoun thinks Morales has it exactly right.
“The objective really is to have fun,” Shamoun said. “We want to teach them fielding and batting, but we really are more interested in their character. We talk to them about leadership, integrity, and being a good teammate. We want them to learn the game but we want them to grow as people as well.”
From watching the coaches and players interact it’s clear that yelling is not part of the program. Batters get encouragement and tips before they go to the plate. If they have problems hitting the ball, the pitcher makes adjustments to make it easier. An on-base out may or may not result in the player heading back to the dugout; if they want to finish their tour of the bases, that is probably not going to be a problem.
Thirteen-year-old Angelo Balajadia has been playing baseball since he was 8 years old. He said his game went well and had been very exciting but he wished there was more of a feeling of competition.
Luckily for Angelo, the coaches who have teams with more mature players can come to an agreement before the game to add more conventional rules, such as counting outs. This makes it a bit more like a standard game, but the rules can be reverted to the non-competitive standard if it doesn’t seem to be working out.
“In San Juan, we started out with about 40 kids and it is close to 100 now,” Ponce said. “It has been very successful and we are hoping to get the Junior Warrior and the Junior 49ers programs here as well.”
Besides the weekly games, the Junior Giants offer players off-the-field activities.
“One of the side benefits of the program is they emphasize reading,” Garza said. “They have to read a certain amount of pages, which changes every year, and the ones who do it are eligible for a free season-end trip to Giants Stadium.”
The Junior Giants also hosts the Digital Dugout, a website that includes virtual practices, health and nutrition information, and over 150 activities. The online program is open to all children and is still accepting registrations.
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