BOSTON — When the Brooklyn-based 78 Youth Sports program was struggling, it put out a call to its most famous alum.
Boston Red Sox reliever Adam Ottavino donated memorabilia and pitching lessons to raise $20,000 so far to help the organization that started him off in baseball rebuild from a post-pandemic hole that almost drove it to bankruptcy.
“That was how I got introduced to the world, by playing sports and being out there with other kids,” Ottavino said this week as he prepared to return to New York for a weekend series against the Yankees. “We don’t want it to go away.”
Of all the businesses that took a financial hit during the pandemic, there’s a special sadness to a shuttered youth league, with children stuck indoors and unable to play with their friends.
More than 1,450 players had signed up for baseball leagues last spring through 78 Youth Sports, one of four programs that use the dozen fields in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. It was to be their largest group ever.
Then the pandemic struck, and it was all canceled: the recreational league baseball and basketball, along with the summer baseball camp, Camp Bulldog.
“This time last year, I was losing sleep,” said Cheri Walsh, the chair of the 78 Youth Sports board. “Not because of the health and safety of my own family; we were very fortunate. I was losing sleep because an organization that had served the community for more than 30 years was going to fold under my watch.
“It was brutal,” she said. “And we are not alone. Youth sports around the country have all struggled.”
Walsh said the organization lost about 30% of its revenue in 2020, going from a budget approaching $950,000 to under $750,000. It burned through its entire cash reserve of $300,000.
Among the more difficult choices: Offering credits, not refunds, for those that had already signed up. “If we issued refunds, it would have meant the end of the organization,” Walsh said.
Two rounds of federal Paycheck Protection Program loans of about $70,000 each enabled them to keep all four full-time employees working. Virtual programing allowed the kids to keep some of their skills sharp.
“We proceeded to figure out how to hunker down and survive,” Walsh said. “Although we are surviving, it’s by a thread.”
Although Walsh said it didn’t feel right to fundraise in last year’s economic climate, the organization did reach out to Ottavino when things started to open back up. His donation — bats, jackets, and semiprivate lessons — helped make a dent in the budget gap.
“It’s important to keep this out there,” Ottavino said. “It’s so easy now to get stuck in your house and never leave, because there’s so much they bring to you now. … When you’re a kid, you need to get out of the house, and go mix it up with other kids, having a great time. You’re kind of learning how to move in society.”
Growing up a block from Prospect Park as an only child, Ottavino said he started playing recreational baseball and basketball when he was 6 years old to avoid isolation. His father volunteered as a coach, helped negotiate with the city for fields and gyms and he could also be found most weekends lining the fields and putting out the bases.
“He used to say, ‘Somebody’s got to do it,’” the ballplayer said. “I remember there’s a lot of time when he was doing it.”
An actor who appeared on Broadway, in movies like “Presumed Innocent” and “Malcolm X” and in 17 episodes of “Law & Order” and its spinoffs, John Ottavino said the goal isn’t as much to groom future major leaguers as to give typical kids a chance to play sports.
“Youth sports is a quagmire. You can have a great experience or you can have an awful experience,” he said. “A good experience is, ’I’m better after 10 weeks than I was at the beginning, made some friends, we laughed we ran around we got dirty and then we went home and got cleaned up and went on with our lives.’”
Ottavino graduated to the 78 Youth Sports travel team before pitching in high school and at Northeastern before he was a first-round pick by St. Louis in the 2006 draft. In 11 years with the Cardinals, Rockies, Yankees and Red Sox, Ottavino is 27-30 with a 3.50 ERA.
“Adam’s a real inspiration to the organization,” said Eddie Albert, 78 Youth Sports’ longtime leader. “Having somebody play in the major leagues from Brooklyn is big.”
Ottavino said having the chance to play as many as five games a week — with doubleheaders on weekends and three more days of practice — “planted the seed of that passion that carried me forward into the other leagues, into the big leagues and every step of the way.”
“It’s nothing that I asked for. I was just put on the right track,” he said. “I was doing exactly what would get me here, I just didn’t know it yet.”
This year, his first in Boston, Ottavino is 2-2 with a 2.95 ERA. Although he aged out of the program more than a decade ago, his father is still a fixture on the fields as an umpire and umpire supervisor.
John Ottavino will be umping seven games this weekend instead of heading up to Yankee Stadium to see his son play. Because of Major League Baseball’s COVID-19 restrictions, he wouldn’t be able to get together with his son, anyway.
“I could go and wave to him at a distance,” John Ottavino said. “But I can’t go and hang out with him and give him a hug and hang out with his wife and kids.”
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