Baseball might be America's national pastime, but that doesn't mean it's the easiest sport to learn.
Trying to teach 3- to 5-year-old children to play the sport can be a tall order, even for the most patient coaches and parents.
But this year, the folks at the Lawrence Parks and Recreation Department think they might have found a new way to teach the game to younger children. Except it's not baseball -- it's blastball.
Compared to baseball, the rules of blastball are refreshingly simple. Instead of four bases there's one, and gone are the error-prone throws to the bases, the cause of numerous inside-the-park home runs, as anyone who's ever watched a T-ball game knows.
"I think it's great, it's pretty funny," said Jill Davis, while her 4-year-old son, Parker, played the game. "He did gymnastics at Parks and Rec, and picked something he hadn't tried yet. There isn't that much for kids his age."
With a user-friendly foam ball and bat, the hitter bats off a tee to a group of fielders organized roughly like they would be on a baseball diamond. If the ball is hit in play, the hitter takes off toward the lone base while the fielders try to corral the ball.
When a fielder has the ball, they hold it up in their hand and yell the word "blast." If they do this before the runner gets to the base, the hitter is out. If instead the hitter makes it to the customized blastball base, which makes a honking sound when stepped on, the offense scores a run. But teams don't usually keep score anyway.
And that's it.
Blastball was invented in 1999 by an Iowa man who thought baseball needed to be simplified for younger kids. Since then, it's started to spread across the country. Parks and Recreation Youth Sports supervisor Lee Ice came across the game at a convention and liked the simple rules and focus on parental involvement.
Ice decided to bring the game to Lawrence this year, and about 60 kids have signed up for the four weekly summer sessions.
During the second week of blastball, played indoors at the East Lawrence Recreation Center, parents watched their children chase the ball around and "honking" the base.
While some parents view the game as an intriguing novelty, others hope to give their kids a head start for their future little league careers.
"I think it's a great introduction to baseball," said J.D. Kerr, whose 5-year-old son, Maxwell, was learning the game. "This looks like they"re really going to show them the fundamentals, throwing and stuff."
Kids and parents get the best of both worlds with blastball head coach John Fumagalli and assistant coach Ryan Martin. Fumagalli is a pitcher for the Kansas University baseball team, and Martin is an Emporia State student working for Parks and Recreation during the summer.
The two bring a mixture of real baseball knowledge and the ability to work with 5-and-under kids with short attention spans.
Fumagalli said he drew on his experience growing up with younger siblings to be able to relate to the blastball players and teach them the game. He tries to involve the kids and their parents as much as possible.
"When they're with their parents, it's real easy," said Fumagalli. "With teaching them, you have to be patient and they'll catch onto it."
The coaches focus on keeping the game moving and the players interested.
"I want them to have fun and enjoy the game," Fumagalli said. "If I can teach them a couple basic fundamentals that will help them when they get older, and if they've had fun, I've done my job."
The hour-long blastball sessions start with hands-on instruction designed to teach the kids one specific element of the game, like hitting or throwing.
Then, the players divide into two teams, and start honking bases and seeing who can yell "blast" the loudest.
At the end of the session, the coaches give the parents and children some games and exercises to work on at home.
And whether blastball is the start of a budding baseball career or just another childhood summer activity is different for each player. But whatever the case, the game is a lot of fun for everybody involved.
"I'm really impressed with coach John," said Terri Huseman, who has 4-year-old twin sons playing blastball this year -- Zebulun and Gad.
"I'm pleased with the instruction that they're getting. I don't know if at this young age, it's going to stick with them, but it doesn't hurt."