June 14, 2006 - The coaches of the Knickerbocker Baseball Academy have a use for those un-popped kernels that tend to congregate at the bottom of the popcorn bag.
They throw them at their players - not maliciously, of course.
It's called the popcorn drill, a batting practice exercise designed to teach the 10-year-olds of KBA to keep a "quiet" head and to stay back in the batter's box while following the dancing kernels.
KBA founder and head coach Lou Ciurca is hoping quiet heads will make for noisy bats when his Knickerbocker Academy Baseball team travels to the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame Invitational Tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y.
The popcorn drill is just one of the instructional tools that coaches of KBA have been using to prep their kids for the invitational-only tournament. The Marana-based team of 10-year-olds will face 96 teams from 36 states at the Baseball Hall of Fame from June 17 through June 23.
"For a 10-year-old, this is as big as it gets to go to Cooperstown," said assistant coach Richard Hyatt.
KBA will travel to the Empire State with 15 players, including a number of them hailing from Marana and Oro Valley as well as from throughout Southern Arizona, in what basically breaks down into a traveling citywide all-star team. There's a big difference, however, from most all-star teams and KBA's mission.
"The way we look at it, it's not a team, it's not a season, it's a program," said Hyatt, a former New York City Police officer who describes himself as more of a dedicated dad than an assistant coach. "You're going to get baseball education and these kids will learn how to travel, they'll learn how to hydrate themselves two days before a tournament, they're learning how to get the proper rest, proper nutrition and it really helps."
In just their second year competing as a team, the Knickerbockers barnstormed their way to second overall in the nation in the Super Series Nationals.
The Cooperstown tournament is among the biggest and most elite in the nation. Teams are invited based on their résumé. The Knickerbockers - one of only two teams from Arizona heading to New York - play upward of 100 games a year in California, Las Vegas and Phoenix.
Preparations for the team began four years ago. During that time, Ciurca, a Rochester, N.Y. native, has been assembling and training the 10-year-old team with Cooperstown as the ultimate goal. After a team was assembled, intense practices began roughly 18 months ago. For the last month, the team has been practicing at 5:30 a.m. to adjust for the time difference they'll face on the East Coast.
Despite getting out of bed at four in the morning, the players are optimistic about their chances in New York.
"I actually think we're going to do pretty good because we've been working really hard the last few weeks," said Jason "Scoot" Bourassa.
To travel to New York, the club had to raise in the neighborhood of $30,000.
The team had a minor setback when slugger Jesse Robles broke his arm playing softball at school. The cast came off just in time for Robles to play in Cooperstown and compete in the tournament's homerun derby, Golden Arm contest and several other fun activities for the kids.
Robles is familiar with the big leagues, his uncle is Sergio Robles who played for the Baltimore Orioles and Los Angeles Dodgers for three seasons in the early 1970s. Among Roble's claims to fame is being traded for hall of famer Frank Robinson.
The trip for the kids is more than just a chance to play baseball.
"We try to educate as much as we can," said Ciurca. "It's more than just playing the game, I want to teach them the history of the game. There's so many major leaguers that I know and they just don't know any of these old time player's names."
Even the Knickerbocker name is taken from the pages of baseball history.
"I wanted something that represented where I grew up in New York, but also because I like to teach the history of the game," said the coach.
Ciurca, a former coach and student at Mountain View High School, also runs a 9-year-old and 11-year-old program under the name Knickerbocker Baseball. The coach will work with these teams until the kids are old enough to enter high school. Most kids who compete for Ciurca do not play in other local Little Leagues.
"People are always keeping an eye open for me," said Ciurca. "When they see a good ball player, I get a call."
To keep his teams closer to home, Knickerbocker Baseball has begun a correspondence with several Mexican teams from Santa Ana and Magdalena, which travel to Tucson to play.
For now, the Mexican teams will have to wait. When the Knickerbockers return from New York they may be changed boys. All players that compete in the tournament are inducted into the American Youth Baseball Hall of Fame. It may not be the baseball hall of fame, but at least it's Cooperstown.