(WIVB) – Late last winter, Blake Urquhart was at his job as a substitute teacher in the Stanley Falk school in Buffalo, working with children with special needs. One of the kids, who knew Urquhart was a baseball coach, asked what he had planned for the weekend.
Urquhart, an assistant at Canisius College, said he was doing a camp. When the boy asked how much it cost, Blake said $150. Camp money is how a lot of college coaches supplement their income. But it occurred to him that most of the kids, many of whom got free lunch at school, could never afford it.
That’s when the idea struck him. Youth baseball has become an expensive proposition in this country, one of the reasons many city kids don’t play it. So Urquhart decided to create a foundation that would provide free baseball camps for young children and expose them to the game he loves.
“That was the basis of the foundation,” said Urquhart, who lived in a trailer in Cleveland with a single mom as a young boy. “I was one of those kids. It’s not. Why can’t these kids get a chance to play baseball like I did?”
His answer was the “First Run Foundation,” a non-profit to provide free baseball instruction and equipment to city kids who might not otherwise play the game. Urquhart found inspiration in Proverbs 31:8-9, which asks us to “speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves.”
Urquhart had more time to plan than he imagined. On March 12, just before Canisius was scheduled to travel to a weekend series with Michigan, the season was shut down because of COVID-19. The Golden Griffins were devastated. Urquhart threw himself into the new venture.
So on Aug. 15, First Run will hold a free baseball camp at Cazenovia Park. Urquhart will have 30 campers — more if demand necessitates — and give the kids free T-shirts and caps. There will be competitions, like a home run derby, in which the campers will have a chance to win free equipment. The kids don’t need to bring bats and gloves. He has enough for everyone.
The players, from 5-16 years old, will be broken into three groups: Those who are playing baseball for the first time; kids with some experience; and the ones who have played the game at a relatively advanced level.
Urquhart said the masks will be required for all adults. Sessions are limited to 10 kids, which will give him and his helpers more one-on-one time with campers. The key thing is to keep things moving and make baseball fun.
“We just want to have ‘em run around and have the joy, the sweet sound of the ping of the bat,” he said, “to play catch and run the bases and have a home run derby. I actually have these WWE championship belts I got at Walmart so I’m going to have a home run derby champion.
“We just want to put smiles on these kids’ faces. Especially with COVID, these kids are stuck inside playing video games. When I was a kid, you had to beg us to come home from the park for dinner. That’s kind of a dying art. You go by these baseball fields and it hurts me to see nobody out there.”
It’s well-established that baseball has lost its hold in America’s cities, particularly among African-Americans. They tend to drift into basketball and football, feeling baseball isn’t for them, that it’s too slow, not sufficiently athletic.
“Not only that, but baseball is an expensive game,” Urquhart said. “That’s why my foundation’s aim is to give everybody a hat, a T shirt and a glove, at the very least. I have about 30 pairs of baseball pants, some of them brand-new with the tags still on them. I have cleats of varying sizes.
Even the avid baseball players tend to be behind the rest of the country in Buffalo, where the harsh weather limits the amount of time kids can play outdoors and develop their skills.
“I coached high school in Colorado, Division III college in Arkansas before I came to Canisius,” he said. “So I have a unique perspective. It’s tough around here. I’ve seen it first-hand. We played down south our first weekend against Ohio State in 2018 and they’d been there two weeks. We hadn’t even been outside on a field.
“How does a team little from little Buffalo, New York, not only go down and compete with these top teams, but beat them?”
Urquhart takes great pride in the fact that Canisius has been a MAAC power under Matt Mazurek, winning the MAAC tourney and a trip to the NCAAs in 2018, and the conference regular-season title in 2019.
He has a thing for underdogs, the guys who want it more and are willing to work for it. He saw a bit of himself in Mike Mazzara, a Canisius walk-on he calls “one of my favorite players of all time.”
“I thought he was a high schooler, honestly,” Urquhart said. “But he loved baseball, He’s one of those kids who’s a lifer, who loves the game.”
Mazzara, who had been unrecruited out of Canisius High, got a shot when the Griffins had some injuries at second base. Later, he was short on catchers. Mazurek asked Mazzara, who had never caught, if he wanted to give it a shot. By the end of last season, as a redshirt sophomore, he was starting.
When Urquhart needed support for the foundation, one of his first calls was to Mazzara’s dad, Michael Sr., who owns an insurance company. Mazzara has three kids who are athletes. He contributed to the First Run website and helped collect baseball equipment for the campers.
“Baseball has given my family so much,” he said. “My father used to say I was crazy for all the travel and time we put into it. But my answer was always, ‘I spent six lifetimes of time with my sons and my daughter over this’.
“So when I thought of another kid maybe not having that opportunity, I wanted to do what I could to help give them that chance.”
Mazzara sent out an email to friends he knew from all those years of youth baseball. “It was amazing,” he said. “Gloves, helmets, you name it, people said, ‘My God, I’d love to do it. People dropped off stuff like crazy.”
Urquhart said responses have been pouring in for the Aug. 15 camp at Caz Park. He could expand it to 40 kids if the need is there. He’s not out to change the world, but maybe he could change a couple of kids’ lives by exposing them to the game.
“As a baseball lifer, it’s sad to say the game is slowly dying, especially in the inner city,” he said. “One day, when I’m an old man, I want to sit in my recliner knowing it’s still the national pastime. To me, it’s the greatest sport.
“There’s a bigger purpose, using sports as a classroom for life. If I can make a difference in the lives of a few kids, make them love baseball and go on to do great things, I’ve done my job.”