Growing up, Chris Donlin developed a passion for playing baseball.
“Baseball, to me, is the greatest game going,” said Donlin. “It has been a big part of my life.”
This year, he is excited to share his experience with a younger generation. Donlin has started the Cheshire Aviators, a baseball program for ages 4-8.
Right now, the Aviators have 54 players.
“We are trying to give a good product for their baseball future,” stated Donlin. “We are going to try to stick to these groups and then move up to a 9- and 10-year-old program. We will look into doing an AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) program, too.”
Donlin had previously spent three seasons as the Cheshire Youth Baseball Tee-Ball commissioner, but decided to make a change and start a new coaching model this year.
“I have four kids under the age of 7,” said Donlin. “They wanted so badly to love it (baseball) because I love it, but they were having trouble having fun.”
Since he wanted his children’s friends to keep playing with some of their peers, he chose to found the Aviators.
“It wasn’t something that I was looking for (initially), but I wanted to give this experience to my kids and their friends,” explained Donlin.
Since Jan. 5, players have been training indoors at Ultimate Sports in Meriden. Three to four youngsters work with a coach at a time.
“Our kids get 100-125 swings, 25 to 50 throws, and 25 to 50 catches,” stated Donlin. “The model is based on the fact that baseball has too much dead time. By the time, you want a kid to do something, they have checked out. We want to spend an hour with the kid to make the time as effective as possible.”
Instead of having pitchers and catchers, the Aviators are only using pitching machines to work with the players.
“The pitching machines will throw a pitch in the (strike) zone 90% of the time,” said Donlin. “It will also give the kids the opportunity to have success and make plays in the field.”
For the season, groups of 10 players will have one-hour practices at Chapman School and Ultimate Sports on Tuesdays and Thursday nights.
Donlin feels positive about the Aviators coaching staff. Paul Cambra and John-John Jose are working with players out of Ultimate Sports. Christopher De Leon, who is working with pitchers, recently retired from playing with the Pittsburgh Pirates organization.
A former University of Connecticut player, Andrew Marrero has also assisted with pitching. Marrero is now playing in the St. Louis Cardinals farm system.
“Our focus, as we grow and expand, is to have kids enjoy the game and have fun,” stated Donlin, who is also coaching with some of his local friends. “We find that kids are disappointed when practices are over.”
Right now, Tee-Ball players will have 6-on-5 games every Saturday at Chapman. The Aviators are also planning to schedule contests with the South Meriden League, so youngsters can play against other children.
Donlin said that the program is focusing on players instead of teams. During the season, youngsters will switch between wearing blue and white jerseys.
“It creates a stronger culture every week because your opponent becomes a teammate,” explained Donlin.
He appreciated the help of Cheshire Parks and Recreation Director John Gawlak in getting to play at Chapman this year.
“Cheshire Parks and Rec. did an excellent job of getting the field redone for us,” stated Donlin.
For this Saturday’s Opening Day festivities, there will be games at 9 a.m., 10 a.m., and 12 p.m. Gawlak and the management team from Liberty Bank will throw out the first pitches.
The Aviators will debut a temporary five-foot tall home run fence for the event. In being sponsored by Avelo Airlines, the fence is named the Aviators Big Fly Zone.
“It is going to be an attainable home run for a 7- to 8-year-old. It will be a short porch fence,” stated Donlin. “When the ball goes over the fence, the kid has the experience of hitting a home run. That will be a life-changing experience for the kids.”
In advance of Opening Day, Donlin liked that the players had a Spirit Day where they could wear their uniforms to school. The Aviators give out two jerseys with a name on the back, Under Armour pants, a belt, and a hat.
Donlin feels that the program’s schedule is flexible for youngsters managing multiple things.
“We have players who play soccer and golf,” said Donlin. “You want the kids to be able to play a lot of activities. Soccer is going to develop a lot of skills that baseball will not.”
On May 7, Donlin looks forward to families attending a Hartford Yard Goats game. Players will be invited to come onto the field for the National Anthem.
The Aviators have also scheduled a Home Run Derby for mothers on May 19.
“We will give a lesson beforehand and then have them hit on the pitching machine,” stated Donlin.
At this point, the Aviators only have boys, but Donlin added that if girls wanted to play, the staff would be willing to teach them. The program plans to run this season through the middle of June.
“We are in the process of working on things for the summer,” added Donlin.