NEW YORK - During the fall semester, the Columbia Baseball team has spent its Thursday afternoons with sixth-graders at the Washington Heights Expeditionary Learning School (WHEELS), just a quick subway ride away from the Morningside Heights campus.
Each week, the team was given a general lesson plan that included sharing career and personal goals. The players also talked baseball, including how to show good sportsmanship and the nuances of the game, such as how many fingers a catcher signals to a pitcher for a fastball or a curveball.
In the last session of the semester on December 10, sophomore Harrison Slutsky shared his goals for the future with the class, saying "I'd love to take baseball as far as I can go, but I know I need to study hard and focus on my education."
The class also got a special visitor that day. Former Columbia standout and current Tampa Bay Rays outfielder Fernando Perez '04CC, a member of the Level the Field executive board, paid a visit to the youngsters, and reflected on the important balance between athletics and academics when he was a student.
When asked by a boy in the class about how to become a better baseball player, Perez responded, "I can give you tips about being a better baseball player, but I can give better tips about being a scholar."
The Lion players worked in conjunction with Level the Field, Inc., a non-profit organization started by Erica Woda '04CC, a former women's soccer player at Columbia, who created the program to use sports as a vehicle to cultivate social skills and develop a work ethic in students that will prepare them for future academic, personal and professional success and empower them to become leaders and productive members in their communities.
"Teaching is not easy. The guys were put on the spot and asked to reflect, to teach children about things like good sportsmanship versus poor sportsmanship," Woda explained.
"They were put in pressure-cooker situations, but they rose to the challenge," Woda continued. "This is why we believe in what our program is teaching. Participation in sports is what has allowed our baseball guys to be successful in the classroom. They are natural leaders and I will be forever grateful to what a difference these guys have already made on these kids."
At the end of the session, the sixth-grade class were treated to Oreo cookies and signed baseballs as the Columbia team bid farewell for the semester. The class gave junior Bobby O'Brien a signed card, and one of the children said "thank you for teaching us different things about baseball and school."
Columbia will start its season on March 5 at UNLV and begins its home slate on March 27 vs. Bucknell, likely with many of the WHEELS sixth-grade class cheering them on at Robertson Field.