MOOSIC — Escaping single-digit temperatures and face-punishing winds, Northeastern Pennsylvania youth baseball players are practicing for summer this week.
Fifteen players dusted off their mitts for RailRiders University. School was in session for the youth holiday baseball camp at PNC Field’s indoor facilities from Tuesday to Friday mornings.
Players, whose ages ranged from eight to 13, received professional coaching that focused on hitting, fielding and agility at the RailRiders training facility. Professional trainers included former major leaguer Russ Canzler, Tampa Bay Rays prospect Joe McCarthy, and recently retired Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders catcher Eddy Rodriguez.
“It’s really cool to spend time with the kids,” Rodriguez said. “A lot of them saw me play over this past year. Being able to pick up a thing or two that I have to give them over these three or four days is honestly all that they could ask for. Besides from that, they get to be doing something athletic instead of being inside and playing video games. That, in and of itself, is a victory.”
On Thursday, participants went to the batting cages to hit off of McCarthy and Rodriguez. (Canzler wasn’t available for Thursday’s session.) The two pro trainers played simulated games with the athletes, and they went through groundball drills to work with the players’ fielding form. Working on the fundamentals, McCarthy said, is imperative at this stage.
“The game is pretty basic,” he added. “What is awesome about these kids is they are so willing to learn and make it fun. Honestly, these three hours fly by with these kids. Because of how serious they take it and their passion for baseball, how much fun they have.”
Part of the purpose of RailRiders University to help the youngsters (and pro ball players) shake off some of the rust from the offseason.
“That’s one of the first things that I like to gauge – how often have you guys been hitting,” McCarthy said. “If so, you can’t be doing the same thing with a guy that’s been hitting year round compared to one that’s just picked up the bat a week ago.”
RailRiders University played games with the kids at the tail end of practice to keep them engaged. Participants tried to hit a ball off a tee while fielding and throwing from an infield position. They also played a game of knockout with volleyballs and a trash can to close Thursday’s session.
Rodriguez, who retired from baseball this month, played his final three seasons with the RailRiders. His 12-year pro career was highlighted by leading the RailRiders to a Triple-A National Championship in 2016. He said that he immediately heeded the call to return to Northeastern Pennsylvania to help with the camp.
“I’ve been asked why are you leaving sunny Florida to come up here for four days to freeze your tail off, and honestly, that did not even cross my mind,” Rodriguez said. “The concept was to come up here, enjoy my time, spend some time with the kids. It’s all about being a part of a community that has taken me in as one of their own.”
Rodriguez is working on one of his post-playing career endeavors with a baseball analytics company called Datraks Pro. The Orlando-based start-up company provides amateur players with analytic assessments. Rodriguez will work as a voice between Major League organizations and amateur data.
He said he was “floored by” coaching offers for major and minor league coaching positions. Rodriguez said he is enjoying his time at home and won’t get into coaching for now.
“I don’t doubt I’ll get the itch,” he said. “But this is honestly about the RailRiders and being part of Scranton/ Wilkes-Barre.”
McCarthy, a former standout at Scranton High School, is currently playing with Montgomery Biscuits, the Double-A affiliate of the Rays. He batted .284 with the Biscuits last season after leading the University of Virginia to a College World Series championship in 2015.
The Scranton native said that RailRiders U was his first baseball-related activity since the end of the season. He has been working on getting his body conditioned for the offseason after the new year.
“My offseason, up until this point, it’s really based off of keeping a clean diet and hitting the weight room,” McCarthy said. “I’ve been waiting for the time to pick up a baseball again.”