Five-year-old rookies and 19-old vets come to camp for love of the game

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It’s longer than a four-hour baseball camp, but for the first 90 minutes, you won’t see a glove or a bat.

During that time, the members of the Van Cortlandt League baseball camp are off in the grassy areas behind the ballfields, stretching, running and doing calisthenics. Younger campers are in gray shirts with light blue lettering, while older participants are in fluorescent green shirts with black lettering. The four coaches are in red shirts.

For this part of camp, everyone is together. They do form running (high knees, backpedaling, side-stepping) before drills around sets of cones. In one, they’ll squat down in a baseball fielding stance as they side-step. In another, they’ll do mountain climbers. In another, push-ups.

When the older kids break off to run sprints up a hill in the woods, the younger kids take a break. They do the  same when the older boys run sprints with a large tire harnessed to their backs.

When they are finished, all the boys sit under tarps in the dugouts for some shade. They replenish themselves with water and Gatorade, and some nosh on $1 chicken-filled empanadas vendors sell at the field.

Johnny Arias, the president of the Van Cortlandt Baseball League, has been running the camp for the last 10 years. The 55-year-old retired city worker is ubiquitous in the middle of the four adjoining ballfields in Van Cortlandt Park visible from Broadway. The league plays games nearly every afternoon in the summer, and every weekday morning for eight weeks, Arias runs a camp from 8:30 a.m. until 1 p.m. 

He charges each player $20 per week to attend the camp with a one-time $50 registration fee that gets them a uniform. About 150 boys — all from the Bronx — participate. They are welcome to come every day, and while some do, on July 30, there were about 75 campers. They ranged from 5-years-old to 19.

Arias, a Dominican native, was a middle infielder in the Cincinnati Reds farm system in the late 70s. His goal with the camp is to develop young talent and get exposure for high-school aged players. He has held showcases with major league scouts and college recruiters and has hosted major league players, including then-Yankee Robinson Cano two years ago. He’s also hosted Dominican teams for tournaments against teams from his league.

“The camp has helped me because I’m faster, I throw harder and I’m hitting more in games,” said 18-year-old Alex Delgado, a right fielder and first baseman who works on his footwork around first base three or four times a week in preparation for playing at SUNY-Broome CC next season. “The workouts make you tired, but they’re worth it. I used to slump in games, but now I’m hitting.”

It is Arias’ mission to create sound athletes and then mold them into ballplayers with strong fundamentals. When the campers finally hit the field, they are taken through a different fielding drill each day before they hit. On July 30, it was having a proper throwing stance on relay throws. And later, it was smacking a tire with a bat to get the repetition of proper hitting technique. 

“When you play baseball for [the school] leagues, sometimes the coaches, they don’t know baseball,” Arias said. “So we make sure we teach them the fundamentals of the game. When we finish with them, they’ve learned something.”

While drills are being conducted, Arias has a watchful eye on the proceedings. Last Wednesday, when he noticed the catcher short-hopping throws to second base, Arias showed him the proper footwork. The catcher was visibly tired, wearing protective gear in the hot weather after running sprints on the back field, but he soon began firing strong throws to second. Arias cites this hard work as a key reason why his players improve.

“Some kids, they start at the baseball camp, and they quit because they don’t want the exercise,” Arias said. “You’ve got to be athletic first to be a baseball player. They want to hit and catch, they’re not here for exercise. But the other kids, after two weeks, they feel better. It makes me feel proud.”

Roger Cortorreal, a 17-year-old graduate from Bronx Early College Academy, is a right-handed pitcher who will play at Monroe College next year. He now sees the value of a high fitness level as it pertains to baseball.

“It takes us to the next level,” he said. “While [Arias is] making us do it, I’m like, ‘Oh, God, I hate him for making us do this.’ But when I’m done, I’m glad I did it. The physical part of the game makes you stronger [and] it prevents injury.”

The camp is not as serious for the younger players, but they are still taught the basics of the game. When the age groups are divided after the initial warmup, the young players are taught proper batting stances and the coaches pitch to them from close range while the other campers field the balls hit in play.

When 7-year-old Guillermo Medina stepped up to the plate, the other players shouted “He’s a hitter!” 

Despite Medina’s small stature, he choked up on his bat and peppered balls all over the field.

“Even though I am smaller than all those kids, I can hit at the same hardness as them,” said Medina, who plays shortstop for the Rockies. “We also learn different types of exercises and how to throw and catch [at the camp].”

Adds Arias: “Younger kids, sometimes they don’t pay attention. But in about one or two years, you see the difference. And by the time they are eight years old, 10 years old, they are ballplayers already.

“And the older guys are role models. They see the big guys, and they want to be that one day. They are dreaming about it.” 

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