It’s clear that Wilton teens Henry Hovland and Drew Connolly are major league devotees of America’s pastime. These boys have been playing baseball since they can remember. But what’s more incredible than the strength of their devotion to their favorite sport is their dedication to being amazingly generous human beings.

They were involved in an effort a few years ago when several Wilton families collected new and gently used baseball gear and brought it to a very impoverished area of the Dominican Republic, an island nation where baseball is just as big an obsession–maybe even bigger than–as it is here in the U.S. Seeing how much the basic sport gear that they took for granted  meant to the kids in the Dominican Republic, it has inspired Henry and Drew to continue to want to give, especially when it comes to making sure other kids who want to play but have more obstacles get that chance.

The two teens are organizing another baseball equipment drive starting this weekend and continuing on Wilton Little League’s opening day. They’re hoping Wilton residents will help by donating new and gently used baseball equipment for some very needy kids in Bridgeport. To help them, we asked them to give us their answers for our “5 Questions With…” series, because we figured their own words would be the best at explaining why this project is so meaningful–and so important.

1.  How long have you each been playing baseball, and what do you love about it?

Henry:  I’ve played baseball ever since I can remember. My parents have a picture of me in the front yard at about age one, with a baseball bat and ball in my hand. My dad was already tossing balls to me at that young age.

I love that baseball is a team sport and that all the individual players have an assigned position and task but must rely on each other to work together to win. You can’t win a game with only one player, no matter how skilled that player is. I also love that baseball looks like a simple game at first glance, but it is actually very complex with many layers of rules and strategies. I’m also a hockey player, so the idea of coming off an ice rink to play on green grass is very appealing.

Drew:  Baseball has been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. As a kid, I never went anywhere without a baseball related item–whether it was a ball and glove, wiffle ball, or even baseball trivia books. Baseball is central my life, to the point where I’ve been called a “baseball addict” by my family.

I love baseball so much because it becomes so much more than a game, as it possesses the ability to build lasting bonds between teammates. I play basketball as well, and while after spending an entire season together has made most of us closer, following the season most of the basketball players go their separate ways. However, with baseball, even after the season passes and the green grass and blue skies of baseball season fade, the bonds made during the season stay as strong as ever.

Additionally, I love baseball because it allows people all over the world to connect. It allows myself and others to share our love of the game with other aspiring players, some of whom who may not exactly be in the most ideal situation. Baseball was not a game designed to be limited by socio-economic standing, and projects such as this one help share the joy of baseball everywhere.

2.  What did you learn from your trip to bring baseball gear to the Dominican Republic?

Drew:  That trip was one of the most amazing, inspiring excursions I have ever taken. Several families were involved in collecting equipment for the Cabrera League, a local group of baseball-loving kids who were in need of the proper equipment to play. We ended up bringing down nine duffel bags full of helmets, gloves and bats to the DR which would eventually be doled out to an eager line of small and large Dominican boys alike. Most of the kids had never even seen such new and fancy equipment, and whatever their coach assigned to them, they happily accepted.

Henry:  The league’s coach let us help hand out the gear so we saw how excited they were to use their new stuff. Boys of all ages were lined up in a very long line on the field, and waited patiently to see what their coach had chosen for them. Some of them no longer had to share a glove with a friend. Left-handed players finally had a glove that was comfortable.

It sounds like such a stereotype, but I saw what baseball means to the DR kids. The players we met eat, sleep and breathe the game. There were so many kids with raw talent — hoping for a big break to play baseball in the United States. Even those without skill lived at that dusty baseball field. It was the center of their small town. It was so much fun to play the game with them and to learn from them. We even had a chance to play a real game against a town nearby. The field was a mess but they make do with what they have.

Drew:  On the last day of the trip, I ended up leaving my bat, sunglasses, and cleats to the infectious boys I had met, a meager attempt at showing my gratitude towards them for showing me what the true meaning of baseball is. The experience showed me how baseball has the ability of captivating entire towns who have very little to look forward to. In fact, the field was located directly next to the schoolhouse, and after a tedious and long day of school, the boys would catch their second wind and join us under the beating sun on their “Field of Dreams.” The trip showed me how baseball serves as an international language, allowing me to connect and interact with people who do not even speak my same language. Through baseball, I made inseparable bonds with all of the kids, some of whom I stay in contact with through Facebook.

Henry:  I think most of the 11 kids that went on that first trip to the DR have stayed in contact (through social media) with a few of the players we became friends with. It was a Spanish immersion for us as well as a baseball immersion.

3.  What’s involved in this current drive? Who are the kids you’re helping and how did you find out about the need they have for gear?

Drew:  The current drive is an ongoing effort that asks for Wilton families to donate new or used equipment at Little League Opening Day on April 4 at the Wilton YMCA. Additionally, a tub will be set up that starting Saturday, March 28 at Comstock Community Center, where people can stop by at any time and drop off their donations. Henry and I are looking to collect any bats, gloves, cleats, helmets, pants, balls and other baseball necessities and any donations go a long way towards helping out.

Henry:  The kids are ages 8-12 and live in the Black Rock section of Bridgeport. I know one of the coaches in the Bridgeport Little League (Wayne Mazzoni, who is also the pitching coach at Sacred Heart University) who was involved in raising money last fall to repair Black Rock’s run-down field. He spoke with my family about the need for equipment for many of these kids. So last fall, I reached out to Tim Roberts, a former MLB player and board member of Wilton Little League. He and his kids had traveled to the DR a year after my family so I knew he’d be supportive of the idea. The WLL got back to me quickly that they were enthusiastic about the project and offered to help get the word out.

Bridgeport Equipment Drive Flyer[3]
(click to enlarge)

4.  Why is it important to each of you to do this?

Henry:  After seeing how much of an impact our efforts made in the DR, I wanted to do the same thing locally. Drew and I have played together on both Wilton and AAU travel teams, so we decided to collaborate on a similar project, this time closer to home.

Drew:  Being a part of such a great cause and helping out the community is always important to me, and when Henry inquired about this drive, it seemed like a no brainer. There is no greater joy in life than seeing the happiness on the faces of kids receiving their equipment, and knowing that you played a part in their sheer joy is a wonderful feeling. I love to help out and pitch back in the community, and participating in this drive was an easy decision.

5.  What would you tell other kids who haven’t yet experienced helping other kids in this way, to encourage them to think about how they can give back?

Drew:  Putting the time back into the community and helping out may seem like a hassle to some, but I can unequivocally say that there is no better feeling in the world than helping out underprivileged kids. The DR experience and this drive have been two of the most enjoyable experiences in my life, and I would encourage anyone who is hesitant to help out to find the best way to join in helping the community. While it may not seem like a big deal to you, you may never know just how much it means to those whom you help out.

Henry:  I would tell other kids that it feels great to have an impact in an area that interests you — like helping other kids have a chance to play a game that I love to play. I would encourage other teenagers that every effort matters, no matter how insignificant it feels at the time. It may mean the world to someone else. Maybe there is a future MLB player about to learn the game in Bridgeport.