by Dennis Dalman
At the baseball field, spectators and teammates waited in vain all season for 12-year-old Jah Jah Fitzgerald to hit the ball – or even take a swing at it.
A member of the Willie Mays team, Jah Jah was a shy boy – hesitant, lacking self-confidence.
Every time he was at bat, he would stand there as the pitcher threw the ball. He’d clam up every time, as if he had a bad case of stage fright.
“I’m not very good at this,” he would tell others, apologetically.
“But you can do it!” they’d tell him. “Just swing at that ball! It’s OK if you don’t hit it, but at least just swing the bat at it.”
But, despite the pep-talk coaxing, Jah Jah would just stand there every time, as if frozen by indecision, never swinging that bat.
Then, during the last game of the season, Jah Jah once again stepped up to bat. But that time, out of the blue, defying everybody’s expectations, he swung that bat and connected – whack! – sending that dizzy ball far up and into the field and earning Jah Jah a double. As he ran the bases, the stunned fans erupted into a frenzy of cheers, whistles, hoots and hollers. Later, after making home base, Jah Jah was high-fived by his deliriously happy teammates.
He was grinning ear to ear.
“Are you coming back to play on the team next year?” an adult spectator asked him.
“Heck yes!” he said with bashful giddy pride and a surge of confidence.
Jah Jah is just one of many boys from throughout central Minnesota who belongs to the Clear Lake Area Youth Baseball Association, which offers many leagues for children – both boys and girls – ages 4 to 15. And like some of the team players, Jah Jah is from a family that is financially challenged. He had a chance to join the team thanks to volunteer efforts and taxiing to and from practices/games provided by Sartell/St. Joseph Newsleader Publisher/Owner Janelle Von Pinnon and her husband, Bruce Schneekloth. Their 13-year-old son, Kavynah, has been a baseball “natural” since he was a toddler. He has been a CLAYBA member for several years and is now on its traveling team, along with Jah Jah and Kane Bastian, friends and neighbors of Kavynah in their East St. Cloud neighborhood.
Von Pinnon and her husband became aware that several of the neighborhood boys – other friends of Kavynah’s – live in families that are struggling for one reason or another, with very limited resources and income. Schneekloth and his wife decided to help those children. Last year, with the children’s parents’ permission, they secured placement on the team for two boys so they could play baseball in CLAYBA; this year they sponsored two more.
“Our son,” Von Pinnon said, “has witnessed neighborhood kids in trouble with the law, having little scrapes with the law. We decided to help them get into activities such as football games in the fall, baseball in the summer. We also take them for trips to the YMCA. We thought we’d offer them different outlets besides video and TV, different outlets for their energies that will give them pride and confidence and keep them on the straight and narrow.”
CLAYBA has also gone the extra mile to help kids in need so anybody who wants to play baseball has a chance. However, funds have been nearly depleted, and so Von Pinnon decided to put the word out that donations or sponsorships are needed and most welcome.
It costs $190 to sponsor one child per season on the traveling team, which includes uniform, field maintenance, stipends for umpires and scholarships for needy children. All donations are 100 percent tax-deductible since CLAYBA is a non-profit volunteer-based organization. Any amount of donations, however, are welcome, and even the smallest will add up to help financially-strapped children enjoy belonging to a CLAYBA team. There are many T-ball, B-Ball and Willie Mays teams for younger children.
Many area businesses already buy sponsorships, including Coborn’s and Subway, Brenny Transportation of St. Joseph, GNP (formerly Gold ‘n’ Plump) and Sterling Park Senior Community of Waite Park (including an employee there who also gave a full registration sponsorship for a child).
Currently, there is an effort to initiate a sliding-fee scale for parents who just cannot afford the registration fees.
“Those who want to donate do not have to be a business and they don’t have to donate for a full scholarship,” Von Pinnon noted. “We invite people who donate to come and watch the games.”
Sponsorships or any amount of donations are good investments, she added, because she and her husband have seen first-hand how these young baseball players not only have fun but grow to know they are accepted, that they belong and that they develop skills and confidence.
“I believe in helping youth to fulfill their potential,” Von Pinnon said, “and the way to do that is to keep them involved, to help them be part of something bigger than themselves and to provide a way for them to have fun while at the same time knowing there is a place for them. They need something to be proud of, something to learn from.”
To donate, go to the association’s website at CLAYBA.com, then look for “Our Sponsors” on the top bar, pull down that menu to “Donate/Sponsor Now” and fill out the form or send donations to CLAYBA, P.O. Box 176, Clear Lake, MN 55319,
For more information, people can contact one of the following: Janelle Von Pinnon: 320-363-7741, or email@example.com; Israel Carter, CLAYBA president: 320-493-2016, or firstname.lastname@example.org; Suzanne Holewa, vice president: 320-558-9217, or email@example.com; or Paul Bandstra, secretary-treasurer: 320-558-8113, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
CLAYBA has been serving the Clearwater/Clear Lake area and players from many other places for more than 20 years.
Last year, there were 96 registered players, and two large tournaments were hosted by CLAYBA.
Each family volunteers four hours per year at various fundraising activities, and many donate much more.
The season starts in February with indoor training and goes all the way through July.
Kids ages 4-15 play home games at Clearview Elementary School. Players ages 12 and over play at Goenner Park in Clear Lake or Sportsman’s Park in Clearwater.
Clearwater Elementary has four fields and a concession stand operated by volunteers. Practice games take place there five days per week. In 2014, CLAYBA averaged hosting seven visiting teams each week.
Some of the CLAYBA teams’ traveling schedules include games at Becker, Big Lake, Monticello, Willmar, St. Cloud, Sauk Rapids and Sartell’s new ball fields in Pinecone Central Park.