by Gene Marrano
Some Little League baseball players who have overcome all sorts of odds to even be on the field were treated to a baseball clinic featuring Salem Red Sox players last Saturday. The first annual Salem Red Sox Challenger Baseball Clinic welcomed players from the Challenger Baseball program, a little league baseball division for boys and girls from ages 4-22 with physical and mental challenges.
“The Challenger players and coaches are thrilled to get a chance to play at the Stadium and look forward to making memories with the Salem Red Sox,” said Sid Witt, Jr., assistant district administrator for the District 12 Challenger Little League, before the event.
The Challenger Clinic was organized by a small local firm called Bulldog Field Equipment, a husband and wife team that have come up with a new patent-pending version of the pitching rubber used in baseball. (The rubber strip where every pitcher must begin their delivery to home plate from, with the tip of one foot touching the rubber.) Cathy and Chad Kropf are working on some other products, but right now the pitching rubber they introduced earlier this year has been a winner. Cathy Kropf estimates that already a third of the 30 major league baseball teams are using their pitching rubber.
“This pitching rubber is something we’ve talked about for years and years,” said Kropf. Minor league clubs, colleges and recreation departments have also ordered Bulldog pitching rubbers, which Kropf said are more durable that the thinner ones currently on the market.
“Ours has 40 pounds of rubber, [others] have 12 pounds of rubber. It doesn’t bow and twist,” said Kropf. The Bulldog model, while more expensive, lasts longer and can be flipped over once it becomes worn on one side. The Atlanta Braves, Miami Marlins, Philadelphia Phillies and Milwaukee Brewers are among the big league clubs using Bulldog pitching rubber, which made its debut just this past January at a sports turf expo in California. “We’re just like yay, that’s ours,” said Kropf. Their pitching rubber will be used at the Kansas City Royals baseball park next month for the Major League All-Star game. “We’re excited about that,” Kropf noted.
Chad Kropf used to clean out the stands at Kiwanis Field, where Salem’s minor league baseball team once played, before becoming the groundskeeper. He then worked for the Atlanta Braves at their spring training complex in Florida, where Kropf met his future wife. After working for Roanoke City and Botetourt County parks and recreation, he now takes care of playing fields at Virginia Tech, where Cathy Kropf also works in the sports marketing department.
She used to work for the New York Yankees minor league farm system – where she had organized four Challenger Clinics. Running the clinics through Bulldog Field Equipment offered some protection insurance-wise, said Kropf. Since Chad Kropf is working for the Salem franchise again in a part time role on the grounds crew, the connection was made.
Sid Witt Jr. and his father, who run the local Challenger program, were contacted and agreed to offer the clinic to the youth players. Salem Red Sox manager Bill McMillon was approached by Tracy Schneweis, assistant general manager and director of facilities for the club, who was hoping that a handful of Sox players could help out by demonstrating some baseball skills.
Instead McMillon offered his whole team. “This clinic is something that we have talked about doing in the past, but never acted on, so for it to finally become a reality is both long overdue and something that excites us very much,” said Schneweis.
One youngster who had been confined to a wheelchair since a car accident was so motivated by being at the clinic that he stood up for the first time in a long while in order to throw a baseball. “He was so excited,” said Cathy Kropf, “[and] we were so excited.” Another little girl, who often sleeps or doesn’t smile, “was awake and smiling the whole time,” last Saturday. The Challenger players came back for a Red Sox game that night, where one of them threw out the first pitch.
At the end of the clinic, Red Sox players signed autographs. The Challenger youngsters in turn signed autograph sheets that Red Sox players posted in their lockers on Sunday morning before a game. “The kids really touched the player’s hearts,” said Kropf, who hopes to see the Challenger Red Sox clinic become an annual event. Perhaps the field at Salem Memorial Ballpark will soon feature their Bulldog pitching rubber as well.
Go to bulldogfieldequipment.com or the Facebook page for more on the Kropf’s product