GALVESTON – Five-year-old Xaivion Farr whacked out five hits in five tries and couldn’t hold in his excitement.
“I got five points,” Farr told his fellow Coach Key Baseball Winter Camp station mates, donning a big smile from ear to ear.
Soon after, though, Farr’s aunt, looking on from the bleachers, yelled out to camp director Gary Key that her Parker Elementary School kindergartener nephew was left-handed.
“He hit pretty good from the right side,” Key responded with a Santa Claus-like chuckle.
But those are just some of the minor details Key hopes to work out as the six-hour camp closes out today at West-Isle Little League’s Buccaneer Field.
“The pipeline to the big show starts at this age,” Key said.
Forty-plus campers, including two girls, ages 5-12, are taking part in Key’s annual preseason warm-up.
“We’re teaching the fundamentals of the game, how to catch and throw and field and hit and catch fly balls,” Key said.
Key knows all too well, considering he has coached high school and college baseball in Kentucky and Galveston for 33 years, most recently at Galveston College.
“We’re a couple of blocks away from where trailblazers like Bo (Quiroga), Brandon (Backe) and Chad (Rogers) lived out a real-life dream, that kids from a small city like Galveston can make it to the big leagues,” Key said.
Again, Key emphasizes the importance of learning and playing the game the right way from the early goings.
“It’s really age-related,” Key said. “At the younger ages, 6 to 9, the kids are afraid of the ball, so catching is tough. As you progress, the pitching gets tougher, so at the older age, it’s tough to hit.
“I think kids nowadays don’t go outside enough to throw and play catch. They’d rather play major-league baseball on their X-Boxes. The work ethics in athletes was a little better 15 years ago because they weren’t exposed to all the technology they now have.”
Not that technology has been a bad thing.
“(Baseball) coaches are better trained now,” Key said. “Along with going to their clinics, they can go to their computer and Google how to throw a curveball or turn a good double play. Technology has made coaches a lot better.”
But back to Key’s camp, where determined campers Roy Doggett, a 9-year-old third-grader at nearby Oppe Elementary School, and 11-year-old Chris Orton, a fifth-grader at Austin Middle School, both hope to improve on their batting.
Doggett hit four balls deep to the outfield, but said he wants to consistently do so even more.
As for Orton, “I want to improve on my mechanics maybe and hit more line drives,” he said.
“They’ve come from all over the county,” Key said. “League City, Dickinson, Santa Fe, Texas City, Galveston, Galveston County is well-represented here,” Key said.
“This is where it all starts. Aaron Garza, who’s at the University of Houston, just shut out Nicholls State on Friday. He was in the camp when he was a 6-year-old. Kyle Ott’s playing at Baylor University, and the Orewiler brothers, Nick and Austin, are in Palo Alto (Calif.) playing Stanford. They play for Rice.”
During the hitting session, Key’s daughter, Lindsay Key, a member of the Stanford University softball team that made it to the College World Series and finished third in 2004, video-taped the campers while Key tossed pitches and gave out quick pointers to each.
“(Key) showed me how to hit the ball fast,” Farr said, still smiling big.
And just think how fast, not to mention — with no pun intended — how far, Farr can hit the ball today when he finds out he is supposed to bat left-handed?”
Galveston Little League coach Roger Enriquez, whose two sons Jonathan, 12, and Jeremiah, 10, are attending the camp, said Key’s input helps make his coaching job a lot easier.
“Basically, the fundamentals they’re learning here give them a jump start to their seasons,” Enriquez said. “That makes it more fun for the kids since they will already have the foundations of the game.”
Stephanie Goolsby drove her 10-year-old son, L.J., in from Santa Fe to take in the added instruction.
“L.J. does private lessons with Coach Key, who’s the best when it comes to working with kids,” Stephanie Goolsby said. “He’s respectful to them, and he gets their respect. He’s very knowledgeable. L.J. loves playing ball and loves learning from Coach Key.”
“It’s a stepping stone progression,” Key said. “The kids advance as they go.”
But Key, proudly wearing a Galveston College Whitecaps warm-up top, has a few suggestions that can help the progression process even more.
In particular, in his adopted home of Galveston, where Key also coached a state champion at O’Connell High School and later two regional finalists at neighboring Ball High.
“Galveston needs better youth facilities,” Key said. “My goodness, you go over to other places, and you see these great little league complexes. Ours are outdated.”
Key also would like to see Galveston combine its Little League programs into one.
But Key’s main concern for Day Two will be focusing on pitching and ending the camp like he always does, with an intra-squad scrimmage.
And maybe, by the end of the day, Key will have helped develop another future major league hopeful. Or settle for a session-ending hug and hearing, “Coach Key, I’m going to see ‘The Lego Movie’ today.”
Either way, Key will agree, mission accomplished.