By Kyle LoJacono
Baseball and scouting have been two of the biggest influences on Owen Sarwatka and the Lutz resident has come up with a way to combine the two.
Owen, 16, is in the final stages of earning his Eagle Scout award and for his final project, he and his Tampa Catholic High baseball team and coaches will teach the sport to children in the Little League Challenger Division. The program allows physically and mentally disabled kids ages 4-21 to learn about and play baseball.
“I wanted to do something to help the community and spread the love of baseball,” Owen said. “I’ve played for about four years and want everyone to have the chance to play.”
Owen, who is a pitcher and catcher, came up with the project idea while watching MLB Network. A special on the Challenger Division was on and he said it looked like a great program.
“That’s when I learned I wanted to do something for the Challenger Division, but I really got things going because George Steinbrenner inspired me,” Owen said. “He gave back so much to the community and when he died this year I knew I had to do something kind of in his honor to help the community he did so much for.”
Both the Bloomingdale and Northside Little League Challenger Divisions will participate in the event, which is called Everyone Can Play, Jan. 15 from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. There will be various stations demonstrating different parts of baseball with Tampa Catholic players and coaches. Those interested in participating must sign up by Dec. 31.
“Our biggest thing is giving everyone a chance to play baseball,” said Northside coach Frank Reyes of Lutz. “I’ve been a coach in the Challenger Division for 15 years and saw how it helped my son. He’s 20 now and has Down syndrome and baseball was a way for him to make friends. I’ve worked in mental health research, mainly with kids, for many years and this program really helps.”
Reyes said the biggest improvement for those who participate in the program is it helps them work with other people. The Northside league is located in the neighborhood across the street from Gaither High and most of the players are from Lutz, Land O’ Lakes, Odessa and Carrollwood. They currently have two Challenger teams that play out of the location.
Reyes said he is also trying to create a stronger link between the Challenger Divisions in the area and connect more people to the program. For more information, call him at (813) 974-7415.
The most important thing to Sarwatka is teaching the sport to the kids, but the Tampa Catholic baseball coaches think it will be just as beneficial for the team.
“We thought it would be something great for Owen and for the team,” said Crusaders hitting coach Paul Russo, who is also Owen’s adviser for the project. “Every player at Tampa Catholic will be a part of it. It will let them work with special needs kids and let them appreciate their own health. I think it will also be a team-building event for them.”
Russo also has a special connection with special needs children. He was the area director for the Miracle League, which is similar to the Challenger Division, for several years. His also taught similar students.
“Watching these kids show their spirit playing this game and getting enjoyment out of it is well worth the effort to teach them,” Russo said. “It’s very special to see and I know the players will get as much out of it as the kids they show the game to.”
Owen, a sophomore, is new to Tampa Catholic this year after spending his freshman year at Tampa Bay Tech.
“All the coaches were on board before they even had all the details,” said Suzanne Sarwatka, Owen’s mother. “Everyone at the school has been amazing with helping. The key club, administration, the cheerleaders, the team. Everyone has been helping and spreading the word about it.”
On the baseball field, Owen will start the 2011 season on the junior varsity team to improve his four pitches — a fastball, slider, curveball and changeup. The Crusaders reached the Class 3A state semifinals last season, losing to eventual champion The Bolles School.
Owen has been in Boy Scouts of America for about five years. He has been in three different troops and is finishing the program as a lone scout, which means he is doing the final achievements on his own.
“It’s helped me with leadership qualities,” Owen said. “Leadership is the biggest thing and also with communications skills.”
For more information on Everyone Can Play or to signup as a participant or volunteer, visit www.everyonecanplay.org.
Everyone Can Play
Where: Bloomingdale Little League
Address: 2215 Bloomingdale Ave. Valrico
When: Jan. 15
Deadline: signup by Dec. 31, 9 a.m.-1 p.m.
Website: www.everyonecanplay.org to signup, volunteer or donate