With a late winter chill still in the air, it's hard to fathom that major leaguers are already reporting to spring training — yes, opening day is only weeks away.
Closer to home, parents and kids are prepping, too, in some cases signing up for baseball and softball lessons to help players add "pop" to their swings and get command of their pitches to improve their game.
For some kids, the goal is to hone throwing, hitting and fielding skills enough to earn additional playing time. Others hope some polishing will improve chances for making travel, high school or college teams. A few dare to dream for more (a look from pro scouts, anyone?).
"I've been taking batting lessons for a year and it has really helped," says Nate Irving, 18, who drives from Yonkers to Hauppauge to get private instruction at Play Like a Pro. Irving says he's won a baseball scholarship to the University of Virginia.
Not everyone has as much dedication - or meets with such success. Former major-league catcher Keith Osik, who played with teams including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Milwaukee Brewers, believes 80 percent of his students will never play organized baseball beyond high school. "But 100 percent of them," he says, "can learn to be better players, increase their game time and have a whole lot of fun."
Here's how to score big by matching lessons to the needs of your budding superstar.
"Most kids come to hit, but throwing and fielding are also important," says Jimmy Goelz, of Prospect Sports in Farmingdale. Goelz, who played with the Los Angeles Dodgers and, locally, the Long Island Ducks, believes even 8-year-olds can benefit from lessons but maintains older kids have better attention spans.
"Start with fundamentals," he says, then work on increasingly sophisticated skill sets. Group lessons are OK for beginners but advanced players should consider individual instruction.
THE RIGHT COACH
Experts agree that it's vital to find an instructor who can put players at ease while still conveying vital information; someone your kid will ask questions.
"My coach has a great way of explaining things," says Matt Crohan, 15, of Jamesport, who plays for Riverhead High School and the Suffolk Police Athletic League's Rangers national tournament team.
Watch several lessons at different facilities to see how instructors handle students. Then ask for someone whose style suits your child's demeanor. Professionals on staff, references from teammates and a long-standing record of satisfaction are points to consider during background checks.
HOW MANY LESSONS?
"We're good, but we aren't miracle workers," says Matt Guiliano, a former big league shortstop who belted the first grand slam in Ducks history and now owns Play Like a Pro. "Baseball is a game of repetition . . . showing up occasionally doesn't help much. You need to practice at home and attend lessons regularly to make big strides."
Expect to pay between $40 and $65 per half-hour for individual lessons, less for group or clinic sessions. Package deals are often available. Generally, you'll pay more for lessons with former MLB players than with minor league or college instructors.
"I've got two sons and a daughter taking lessons right now," says Andrew Russell, 44, of Massapequa. "The sessions have made a huge difference — but no matter where you go, they aren't cheap."
The following offer baseball lessons with instructors possessing MLB, minor league or college experience. Lessons are offered through many additional venues.
WHERE TO LEARN
Prospect Sports: 171D Milbar Blvd., Farmingdale, 631-777-2077, prospectsportsli.com; MLB affiliates: Jimmy and Bryan Goelz
Baseball Plus: 400 Duffy Ave., Hicksville, 516-827-5009, baseballplusny.com; MLB affiliates: Ciro Ambrosio, Patrick Anderson, Doug Hecker, Oreste Marrero