A man and a woman in baseball jerseys and sunglasses smile at the camera outside.

Snell Isle mom and St. Pete native, Catherine Nelke, is stepping up to the plate for youth baseball with Hit the Mitt, a baseball academy she founded to make the All-American sport fun and accessible to more kids.

And she definitely means fun. Picture a young player learning proper batting stance by taking a swing and connecting with a baseball that explodes, sending out a brightly colored cloud of chalk dust. Hearing their own “walk up” song as they step up to the plate, like the professional ball players. Or meeting baseball celebrities like Emmanuel Rosario, a former pitcher for the Savannah Bananas, an exhibition team known for entertaining “on-field hijinks” with music, dance skits, and stunts.

“We teach good sportsmanship, community advocacy, and leadership along with the mechanics of the game and proper technique, but we make it fun so the kids never feel discouraged or want to give up playing,” said Nelke. “It’s great to see them show up with a smile on their face, gloves on and ready to play. “

A photo of a little boy posing with a bat and a t-ball stand with a gold skull on it.
Hit the Mitt player William Tews up to bat. Courtesy of Hit the Mitt.

Nelke launched Hit the Mitt a year ago last summer, just as her son, Connor, 10, was finishing up the spring season with Northeast Little League. He had been playing baseball since he was 6, and he enjoyed it. But she realized that although some of the top players might go on to All-Star, travel, or club teams, the majority didn’t have anything to look forward to that was organized and ongoing locally for the summer.

“There just aren’t a lot of programs in this part of St. Pete where our younger kids could play through the summer and practice their skills,” said Nelke. “I thought, ‘We live in Florida, we have a history of baseball in St. Pete, and these kids should be able to train and condition all year.’”  

With the help of another Northeast Little League mom, Elizabeth Tews, Nelke reached out to the parents of team members, asking if they’d be interested in meeting weekly in the summer at Denver Park in Shore Acres after dinner, when it wasn’t so hot. The kids could work on skills, focusing on a different one each week.

“I found a coach who was home from college and we usually had about six kids each week,” said Nelke. “We ended on a super fun note with games like sack races around the bases or kickball. Several families enjoyed it so much they said we should keep it going.”

Julie Bruce’s two sons, Connor, 8, and Mason, 7, were among the kids who showed up for practice. “They loved it,” said Bruce. “They were so excited to play the fun games. It was a really good experience that brought back their love for the game.”

A photo of a large group of kids posed outside in front of a brick building.
The North Shore Elementary Hit the Mitt players. Courtesy of Hit the Mitt.

Since then, Nelke has held baseball clinics for Northwest Youth Baseball, organized a seven-week after-school program at North Shore Elementary, and a 10-week program for students in the lower grades at the Canterbury School Hough Campus on Snell Isle. She also hosted a special nonprofit event at North Shore Elementary, open to players in first through fifth grades. Many of them didn’t have gloves, so Nelke spread the word, asking for donations. The Tampa Bay Rays gave hats and jerseys, while an anonymous donor offered batting equipment, gloves, and a check for equipment.

“It’s my goal to bring a high level of coaching and mentoring to the kids,” said Nelke. “Many of our coaches are former MLB players and professionals who encourage the kids by sharing stories about their own baseball journeys – the challenges and successes.”

A retired sales manager for Allstate, John Currado is the head coach at Hit the Mitt and assistant varsity baseball coach at Canterbury High School of Florida. He grew up in Staten Island, where he “fell in love” with playing baseball at age 6 and went on to play on the 1964 Little League All-Star Championship Team. Currado’s passion for the sport continued and he racked up accolades that included a baseball scholarship to New York University, MPV of the Atlantic Coast Baseball League, and playing with the U.S. National Baseball Team. When he wasn’t playing, he was managing Little League and coaching college teams.  

A photo of a man standing with boys in front of a garage door.
Coach John Currado with some of his players. Courtesy of Hit the Mitt.

“I loved being on the field, loved practice, and loved competing – and the chance to be part of the team,” said Currado, who also wrote A Manager’s Guide to Coaching Youth Baseball. Working with Hit the Mitt gave him the opportunity to get back on the field and in the game. But it was also Nelke’s mission that spoke to him. “She’s hoping to reach out to the regular players who don’t have an outlet and aren’t getting the attention. How else are they going to learn the game and see if it’s something they want to embrace and make part of their lives?” said Currado.  “Baseball builds and develops kids. It teaches life lessons: how not to get frustrated when you’re behind, how to stay in the game, build focus and mental toughness. All those qualities that help you not only be successful in baseball, but also in life.”  

Nelke estimates that she’s been able to reach about 75 children through Hit the Mitt. But she has big dreams of expanding significantly, including offering the program year-round. She’s been searching for an affordable outdoor field, and she’d like to partner with an indoor facility where the kids can play in the summer when the heat or storms can put an end to games. So far, she hasn’t found anything affordable, but she isn’t one to give up easily.

A photo of a kid batting a ball and a large puff of green smoke.
Connor Nelke hitting an exploding baseball. Courtesy of Hit the Mitt.

This summer, Hit the Mitt will host a summer youth baseball clinic for kids going into third through eighth grade. It’s open to the public but held at the Knowlton Canterbury School campus. To register, visit canterburyflorida.org/programs/summer-programs. Hit the Mitt is listed in the summer camp brochure.

 For more about Hit the Mitt, visit hitthemitt.org. To see additional photos and video, check out Hit the Mitt Saint Pete on Facebook and Instagram, Tik Tok (@hitthemitt), and YouTube (@CatherineNelke4611/ Hit the Mitt).