BASEBALL PROGRAM IN THE UPPER KEYS BUILDS SKILLS & HELPS MAINTAIN A HEALTHY MIND

Coach Doug Mientkiewicz watches players take a lead from first base during a base-stealing drill. JIM McCARTHY/Keys Weekly

A banner with the words “Outwork ’Em” hangs from the dugout at the Coral Shores baseball field at Founders Park in Islamorada. The diamond, home to the Hurricanes baseball team, is also a place where baseball players, from Little League to high school, come during the summer to sharpen their skills and minds. 

The Steady Bats program kicked off following the conclusion of the 2020 high school baseball season. ’Canes high school baseball coaches Joe Molinaro, Doug Mientkiewicz and Paul Varga realized that players needed more than regular season games if they wanted to compete with the best teams in the division. For younger baseball players, it presented an opportunity to work alongside high school players and receive a high level of instruction by the ’Canes baseball coaches. 

Fifty players registered, including one female, during Steady Bats’ inaugural year in 2021. Molinaro said year two of the program remains open to males and females 10-18 years old. 

“We’re looking forward to seeing the kids that committed last season as they come back to continue their journey,” Molinaro said. “But we also want to see new faces.”

Young baseball players take part in throwing drills.

Mientkiewicz, a 2004 World Series Champion with the Boston Red Sox and a 2000 Summer Olympic gold medalist with the U.S. team, said the number of players coming out to participate in Steady Bats grew as time progressed. Not only that, Mienkiewicz said he noticed growth within the high school players. As for younger players, they began to come out of their shell. 

“The young kids went from very shy and standoffish to the point where we had them break down the group every practice. The high school kids would help the young kids. The young kids enjoyed that.”

In Steady Bats, Molinaro said young players witness and hear how the older players are coached. 

“They also get comfortable on the bigger field and get to see what it takes. It gives them that experience they wouldn’t get anywhere else,” he said. 

The age span of players in the program had coaches realizing that it could be a challenge to keep everyone engaged. That’s when Pam Molinaro, Joe’s wife, offered to help and suggested her experience as a mental health therapist as an added tool. While coaches concentrate on teaching and reinforcing baseball fundamentals, Pam concentrates on the mental aspect. Coaches and Coral Shores athletic director Rich Russell saw the benefit, so much that she joined the high school baseball team as assistant coach last season. 

Pam said she provided mental health counseling to teams and individuals, including a client who ran the Tokyo Marathon. 

“I ran the Tokyo Marathon because a client entered panic mode the day of the race and needed support,” she said. “Mental toughness cannot be handed to someone. Sometimes a person just needs a little extra support, and if they are willing to put in the effort, I am willing to give at least 26 miles.  

“With Steady Bats, I work with the kids to first understand how their brain influences their physical performance,” she continued. “I work with the kids to be mentally prepared, whether it is during stretching, batting practice or fielding exercises.”

Joe Molinaro said Pam’s involvement improved communication between the players and coaches. 

“Besides developing the team, it’s about giving kids an opportunity to have someone with mental health counseling experience at their fingertips,” Joe said. “Some kids aren’t comfortable talking about issues. She’s an open door. She can focus on someone who’s having a bad day and help them through whatever they’re dealing with.”

Baseball requires agility and power, but a sharp, healthy mind is also key in a player’s success. 

“When the legs are strong and the brain is quicker and you don’t feel tired, you don’t make mistakes,” Mientkiewicz said. 

Year two of Steady Bats will continue to focus on the fundamentals of baseball to improve skills. Pitcher-catcher sessions and other hands-on training will be provided by coaches. 

Sessions are Tuesdays and Thursdays from 6 to 7:30 p.m. at the Coral Shores baseball field. Each session is $25. 

Those wishing to register can visit steadybats.org and click on the registration tab. Those wishing to sponsor the program can visit the website and click on the get involved tab. 

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Jim McCarthy is a Western New Yorkers who escaped the snow and frigid temperatures for warm living by the water. A former crime & court reporter and city editor for two Western New York newspapers, Jim has been honing his craft since he graduated from St. Bonaventure University in 2014. In his 3-plus years in the Keys, Jim has enjoyed connecting with the community. “One of my college professors would always preach to be curious,” he said. “Behind every person is a story that’s unique to them, and one worth telling. As writers, we are the ones who paint the pictures in the readers minds of the emotions, the struggles and the triumphs.” Jim is past president of the Key Largo Sunset Rotary Club, which is composed of energetic members who serve the community’s youth and older populations. Jim is a sports fanatic who loves to watch football, mixed martial arts and golf. He loves to hit the links and play some softball with his Make A Play team. He also enjoys time with family (he's expecting a little boy in October).