Sports Corner

Junior Giants: Teaching life lessons through baseball

Members of the Junior Giants, an organization that teaches not only baseball, but also how to become good citizens and contributors to society. Photo: S.F. Giants

While the Giants’ on-field fortunes can ebb and flow though the course of a season, one part of the franchise remains ever on the upswing. We refer to Junior Giants, the flagship program of the Giants Community Fund.

The fund itself was established in 1991, during the final years of Bob Lurie’s ownership of the team, with the earliest efforts coming in the form of grants to organizations serving the community.

When the new ownership group, headed by Safeway president Peter Magowan, took over the team in 1993, the seeds planted in the Lurie years blossomed to full bloom. “We were looking for new directions to take the fund, and in 1994 we came up with the idea for a different kind of youth baseball/softball league, which we named Junior Giants,” said executive director Sue Petersen. “From the start, we focused on underserved communities where organized baseball is difficult to find.”

From the get-go, the organizers were determined to make Junior Giants more than a way to teach baseball skills. “We devised the four bases of character development — confidence, integrity, leadership, and teamwork — which we display on the league logo,” said Petersen. “While there’s an emphasis on teaching the kids how to play baseball, there’s an equal emphasis on showing them ways to become good citizens and contributors to society.”

Junior Giants’ games are purposely noncompetitive. Explained Petersen, “We want our young players to learn life skills without the distractions of chasing after a league championship or MVP award.”

From a starting point of 18 Bay Area leagues serving 2,500 kids in 1994, the program has grown to more than 85 leagues annually reaching more than 30,000 throughout Northern and Central California, as well as Oregon and Nevada.

However, the true importance of such numbers is measured in the lives of the youthful participants as they grow into adulthood. Case in point, Miguel Figueroa. “I’m a first-generation Mexican-American who grew up in San Bruno. My parents immigrated from Mexico and they really didn’t know much about American sports,” he said. “Through a friend, I learned about the Junior Giants, and the best part for me initially was that it was free. My family didn’t have much money for me to play organized sports.”

Starting at age 11, Figueroa played three summers in the San Bruno league. “I think it definitely changed my life, because I was able to experience things I otherwise wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do. I especially appreciated the team discussions we had about ways to handle bullying, because I was small as a boy and got picked on a lot,” said Figueroa, who carried his lessons learned through high school and on to San Francisco State, graduating in 2021.

Soon after, he went to work in the Giants front office, and currently serves as a guest services representative in the ticket department. True to his roots, he spends his free time in the summer as a volunteer coach in the same San Bruno league from which he came. “It’s kind of cool having the chance to go back and coach today’s kids as someone who came from there. It makes me feel proud of what the program did for me,” he said.

Over the years, the Giants have added offshoot initiatives to Junior Giants. They expanded its reach with the establishment of Junior Giants in Schools, which provides services and activities to P.E. and after-school programs. The Junior Giants Glove Drive generates donations of new or slightly used baseball mitts to kids who don’t have one of their own. And the Peter A. Magowan Fields for Kids program renovates sandlots on which Junior Giants games are played, installing backstops, dugout roofs, grass outfields and bleachers. Most recently, Wilson Park Baseball Field in Vallejo was transformed in that fashion and renamed Brandon Crawford Junior Giants Field. The Giants star shortstop was on hand for the May 16 rechristening.

But beyond such refinements, the true strength of Junior Giants remains with its original concept, where childhood participants enjoy days full of baseball fun on their very own fields of dreams. Said Petersen, “Thinking back to where we started, it’s pretty amazing how far we’ve come.”

Considering the dedication and commitment of everyone involved, it should be no surprise at all.

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