MICHIGAN 4-H STEPS UP TO THE PLATE TO KEEP BASEBALL & SOFTBALL AFFORDABLE FOR U.P. COUNTY
Baseball is a sport loved by many from an early age, which made it all the more difficult for one Upper Peninsula county that found itself struggling to provide a program in spring 2023. Rising costs and other challenges had Schoolcraft County’s existing youth baseball and softball leagues looking for new options.
Fortunately, community members knew where to turn. Michigan State University Extension stepped up to the plate to offer 4-H baseball and softball leagues for local young people.
A compressed timeline
“The board came to me on April 4 and asked, ‘Could we switch our baseball program to 4-H?’ ” said Jill Connin, 4-H program coordinator for MSU Extension in Schoolcraft County. “They knew we’d done soccer, volleyball and track programs in the past so we could offer recreational programs through 4-H. I knew it was going to require a lot of quick work to appropriately screen all of the adult volunteers, but I said, ‘Let’s do this!’ ”
Connin quickly chartered the new community club, then opened member enrollment. By mid-May, about 150 players from Schoolcraft and Delta counties had signed up. The players, aged 5 to 15, were divided into 12 teams — six baseball and six softball.
The program’s coaches and other volunteers all had to go through MSU Extension’s rigorous volunteer selection process, which includes background checks, reference checks and interviews. With help from 4-H program coordinators in neighboring counties, Connin completed the process for the more than 60 adults involved with the program, who all became verified Michigan 4-H volunteers.
As she would for any new 4-H volunteers, Connin led an orientation for coaches that explained 4-H’s guiding principles of positive youth development and highlighted other 4-H programs in the area. She also had signs with messages about sportsmanship placed in the dugouts and in front of the bleachers, reminding the players to be good teammates and the adults to be positive role models for the players.
“It was a whirlwind, but we did it,” said Connin. “I’m so glad that our community was able to have this experience and that 4-H was able to be part of the solution.”
Broad community support & benefits
Other leagues’ rules limited who the 4-H teams could play to Luce County 4-H and Alger County Parks and Recreation teams. Local school teams were integral to program, too; the older 4-H teams scrimmaged against varsity teams and varsity players umpired 4-H games. Calling the games allowed the fledgling umpires to develop their leadership skills, too.
Local community members also came out strong to support the new 4-H program. A local car dealership donated funds to the program and offered an incentive if community members stopped by their location to test drive a vehicle. One local credit union sent 11 staff members to test drive vehicles and help raise money for the program.
“It’s been inspiring to see the community develop creative ways to support the 4-H baseball and softball program in Schoolcraft County,” continued Connin. “We appreciate their support.”
Planning for expansion of teams
With the 2023 season behind them, Connin already has plans to expand the program in 2024. This includes increasing participation, continuing to recruit local volunteers, partnering with local organizations, and expanding the league to other, nearby counties.
“We’re looking forward to offering this program again next year,” said Connin. “This was a good kick-off year and we made it happen in a matter of weeks – think of what we can do with a whole year to prepare! In 2024 we’ll be able to bring in the local T-ball program and we are excited about getting all the teams into 4-H.”
As an added bonus to the Schoolcraft County 4-H program, the baseball and softball 4-H enrollments made other 4-H events and programs more visible to area young people. Connin said several baseball and softball players, brand new to 4-H in 2023, became involved in local 4-H camps and other programs. She also continues to offer the leagues’ coaches more opportunities to volunteer with 4-H.
“There are so many ways to be involved with 4-H year-round, I was planting the seeds with our coaches as I did the volunteer interviews,” said Connin. “Regardless of how involved they become, we are so glad to have our baseball and softball friends as part of our Schoolcraft County 4-H community.”
To learn more about Michigan 4-H, visit canr.msu.edu/4h.