A 30 year babysitting gig: MU baseball's Kid's Night Out turns 30
MANSFIELD - By anyone's reckoning 30 years is an import milestone.
But in the realm of community relations and athletic fund raising, 30 years of success with one promotion is almost unheard of.
The Mansfield University baseball team celebrated its 30th year of hosting its popular Kids Night Out promotion this past Saturday evening when more than 100 area youngsters joined the Mountaineers baseball team for three hours of fun.
"I don't think anyone knew how successful it would become when we hosted the first one in 1983," said head coach Harry Hillson. "It takes a lot of energy on the part of our players and staff but it has great rewards both the community and the program."
The idea actually came from a newsletter circulated to coaches by Juggs Sports which makes the Juggs gun along with products for baseball, softball, soccer, tennis, cricket and field hockey. The newsletter listed a number of fund raising ideas sent in by coaches from across the country and Kid's Night Out was one of them.
Then head baseball coach Roger Maisner decided to give the concept a try and Hillson, who was in his first year as an assistant coach, helped organize the activities and spread the word.
That first KNO was held in February and was one of two the baseball program hosted that year. It was successful enough to be continued through the next two years and when Hillson took over the reins of the program after the 1986 season it really began to grow.
By the early 1990s the baseball team held as many as 14 KNO's during the year with as many as 250 youngsters of all ages being dropped off at Decker by parents grateful for a night out by themselves.
The offerings grew, too. Hillson converted one of Decker's classrooms into a disco and another into a movie theater. But the most popular activity has always been the swimming pool. It was the most popular in 1983 and still is today.
"I don't want to give away my age but I have vivid memories of going to KNO to swim when I was a kid," said longtime assistant athletic trainer Brian Oakes. "Now my kids are ready for KNO. What kid wouldn't want to use a swimming pool in February?"
Although the team has cut down the amount of KNO's to four this year, the impact the program has on area kids remains the same. It's become sort of a rite of passage for kids from Blossburg to Tioga and beyond with many of them dropped off at the Decker door by parents whose parents did the same to them years before.
The concept of college baseball players fund raising by babysitting has also been popular with national media. A feature story of the Mountaineer's KNO appeared in the NCAA News and in 1995 Sports Illustrated ran another feature story on the unique fund raiser when the Mountaineers were ranked No. 1 in the nation in the NCAA Division II Preseason Poll.
John Walters, a feature writer for Sports Illustrated, spent three days with the team on a road-trip during the season before attending a KNO session in Decker Gymnasium.
Through it all the principle of success has remained the same.
"The first thing and most important thing is to make it fun for the kids," says Hillson. "You keep it fun and the kids keep coming back and that's a real testament to our guys. They remember what it's like to be a kid and really go out of their way to make sure it's a positive experience."
It's become a rite of passage for the hundreds of players who have worked KNO over the past 30 years also. Giving up a Saturday night, especially after practicing during the day and hosting clinics on Sundays, is tough for the players but it also bonds them together like few activities can.
"I know 30 years from now I'll still remember KNO," said sophomore infielder Anthony Renz. "In fact, I don't think there's a player in the last 30 years who will ever forget it. Trust me, in the annals of baseball there is nothing else like it."
That sounds like the same sentiment that's created a bond between Mansfield baseball and thousands of happy kids and grateful parents since 1983. There's just nothing else like it.