Little Boys of Summer

Pretty much all the kids in Centreville want to be like Brandon Snyder someday. He's only 12.

Young Snyder is the centerpiece of the baseball boom now consuming his 'burb. Last weekend, before a standing-room-only crowd at Cub Run Field, he hit a home run in his team's final turn at bat to give his Rockies a 5-4 win over the rival Astros and the Southwestern Youth Association's Major League Championship. That left him with 19 homers in 21 games. Little League games run just six innings. Translated into a schedule of 162 nine-inning games, which is what grownup major-leaguers play, that's a 219-homer season. He also batted .796 for the year. No translation necessary.

Youth baseball may be dying or even already dead in downtown D.C., but not in Centreville. Around 2,000 players marched under the SYA banner at the Opening Day parade this season, the biggest turnout ever. SYA's fall baseball leagues, which didn't even exist a few years ago, are also expected to crank up with record participation just as soon as the All-Star campaigns end. The competition among Centreville parents to get their kids enrolled in the right summer baseball camp is suddenly akin to what a well-heeled Ward 3 family would go through trying to get Little Albert into St. Albans.

Along with Mark McGwire and a great economy, at least some portion of the current craze can be traced back to Brandon's father, Brian Snyder--and not just for the role he played in producing the neighborhood icon. The elder Snyder runs the Northern Virginia Baseball Academy in Chantilly, an indoor facility that offers year-round baseball training and private instruction in all phases of the game.

After some early struggles when it opened, in late 1994, business has gotten so swell that the academy now operates a second outpost in Alexandria and is about to announce where in Prince William County its next location will be. Essentially everybody who plays SYA baseball during the summer patronizes the Chantilly plant, and soon the academy will debut its own "elite" league to meet the demand of the area's bullish baseball market.

"Baseball is big everywhere right now, and it's very big around here," Snyder says. "That's good for us."

Brian Snyder, 41, grew up in Centreville back when there weren't 2,000 people in the whole town, let alone that many Little Leaguers. When he wanted to play baseball as a kid, there wasn't an indoor facility to run to. Not that he needed one.

"I learned the game playing pickup baseball with my friends, every single day of summer," he says.

And he learned the game well. Snyder's play for Chantilly High School got him a spot on the Clemson University squad, and his performance as a southpaw pitcher there caught the eye of scouts for the Seattle Mariners, who made him their seventh-round pick in the 1979 draft. He bounced around to the A's, Padres, and Braves organizations over the next 11 years. And even though all but 17 innings of his career were spent in the minors, Snyder walked away in 1990 with great memories and even a World Series ring. (He made two appearances during Oakland's 1989 championship season.)

He came back to the area after retiring and worked in a few other baseball tutoring jobs before some investor friends told him they'd open up a clinic in his old stomping grounds if he'd manage it. His time in the pros had made Snyder realize that what his hometown lacked could be costing its youngsters baseball scholarships and shots at careers, so he quickly agreed to take the job.

"I could see that the guys from...the South and out West, where the weather is nice--so they play ball year 'round--had an advantage about getting the slots at the top college programs," he said. "Their talents develop at a younger age. We can't play all year here outdoors, but you can help the kids catch up some with an indoor facility."

In fact, Snyder says, the training programs now available, for a fee, at his academy compare favorably with the tutelage he received in some pro organizations.

"If anybody would have mentioned 'biomechanic breakdown' of a baseball player 20 years ago--and I'm talking about in pro ball--he would have been laughed at. Now, we're videotaping 12-year-olds," he said.

The video sessions, which can diagnose fundamental flaws in a player's swing or pitching motion, are included with private lessons at the academy, which begin at $35 per half-hour.

It doesn't take a cynic or a video camera to diagnose the downside of making high-tech training methods and the quest for perfection staples of a kids league. Organized youth baseball already packed too much pressure for some fragile young egos before "biomechanic breakdown" entered the preteen lexicon. Snyder, putting fatherhood before business, candidly says he worries whenever he encounters an academy client who doesn't get the joy out of baseball that he used to himself.

"When we played pickup--four-on-four, barefoot in the park--we played for fun," he says. "But pickup baseball is dead around here, and has been for years. Now, everything's organized. So we're trying to teach kids things that were almost inherent to us back then. All the time I'm seeing kids who have perfect swings or pitching motions that are unbelievably sound from a technical standpoint, but they have no idea how to play baseball. And, when you try to shove fundamentals, or anything else, down an 11-year-old's throat for eight months a year, which is what the baseball season is now, you've got to worry about burnout. But the level of competition out here is intense, so these kids need more and more training, or at least they think they need it."

Brandon's batting average and home run tally make him a great advertisement for his dad's place of business, but the elder Snyder says he often tells his son to stay home and think about something other than baseball.

More time in the academy's batting cage wouldn't have made the kid's last year of Little League any more memorable, and it couldn't have made him a bigger hit with the locals.

"I can see Brandon going all the way to the majors," a talkative young girl with braces, leaning up against the fence at Cub Run Field, says to nobody in particular after the championship game, while Snyder and his fellow little boys of summer celebrate the win and swap Pokemon cards in the dugout. "I mean, his dad did it. But I guess everybody in the whole world knows that."

Well, everybody in her whole world, anyway. --Dave McKenna

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