FUQUAY-VARINA — In his swampy backyard in the outskirts of town, Banks Hartman tirelessly smacks baseballs off of his beaten black tee.
“When the summer started we had a full bucket, now half of the balls are gone,” said Fred Hartman, placing another dirty baseball on his son’s tee.
Some of those balls have been waterlogged from the summer’s endless rain. Banks has sent the others sailing into the woods deep behind his family’s backyard.
Banks, 8, spends seemingly every day practicing his pitching, hitting and running.
Banks’ practice came fruition Monday when he competed in the national finals of the Major League Baseball Pitch, Hit & Run as part of the MLB All-Star festivities at Citi Field in New York City.
Banks was one of three finalists in the 7- to 8-year-old boys division, a contest that began with 4,000 competitions and 600,000 kids. He didn’t win, but getting to the national finals was no small feat.
A total of 24 kids advance to the national finals, and Banks was the lone North Carolina representative.
“It’s been amazing,” Fred Hartman said before the family had left for New York. “Anytime you can watch your child have success at something they love to do and experience it with them like we’ve been lucky to do, it’s something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.”
The Pitch, Hit & Run competition is baseball’s equivalent of the NFL’s Punt, Pass & Kick. Kids starts by throwing six pitches at a strike-zone target and receive points based on how many times a pitch lands inside the strike zone. Hitting is the second leg, which measures a kid’s hit off a tee. The score is calculated by distance and accuracy toward straight-away center field. The final portion measures how fast they run from second base to home.
Banks had to win three competitions to get to New York. His journey began at a local Fuquay-Varina competition. He won and qualified for the sectional in Raleigh. His score there was good enough to advance to the Atlanta Braves team competition, a contest that took the three best scores in a region that encompassed portions of six states.
“I never knew Atlanta and New York City were in there,” Banks said.
Banks saved his best score for Atlanta, throwing five of his six pitches for strikes and winning again in Atlanta. Banks’ score in Atlanta was measured against boys in his age group from the 29 other competitions in MLB ballparks around the country. The three highest scores advanced to New York.
“I really thought he had a great shot because his score in Atlanta was very good,” Fred Hartman said. “You have no idea what the other kids are scoring, but when he hit five of six pitches, I thought he had as good of a shot as anybody.”
Banks and his family found out the rising third-grader had advanced to the national finals on MLB Network. The Hartmans and several friends watched it together, and when Banks was announced as one of the three finalists, the room erupted in cheers.
“I had a huge party and it was on TV, but I couldn’t hear my name because my dad was screaming so loud,” Banks said.
Along with an all-expense paid trip to New York, Banks and his father attended a breakfast with the MLB All-Stars. Banks shagged fly balls during the Home Run Derby and attended the All-Star Game.
Banks said his favorite player is Braves All-Star Freddie Freeman. Banks said he helped vote the first baseman into the All-Star game in MLB’s Final Vote.
“He plays first base like me, and I do the splits like him,” Banks said.
Banks had goals set for the competition portion of the festivities. But he saved his most adventurous goal for the Home Run Derby.
“I want to rob a home run from the Home Run Derby.”