Red Sox Reading Game opens new season

Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek will once again captain both the “Olde Towne Team” and the MTA’s effort to get kids excited about reading over the summer.

“The more kids read, the better they do in school,” said Varitek, who is entering his sixth year as the spokesman for the MTA Red Sox Reading Game. “You have to read to learn. It’s the key to success for every child.”

The reading contest, which will be sponsored this year by the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation, is open to all Massachusetts students in kindergarten through eighth grade. Students who read nine books, one for each position on the baseball field, are entered into a drawing to win free tickets to a Red Sox game at Fenway Park.

MTA President Anne Wass thanked Varitek for his work with the association and described him as “a great reading role model.”

“His longtime participation in this program and the support of our new sponsor, Hanover Insurance, reminds students and adults that reading is an essential skill for success at any level of play,” she said.

At the start of the reading contest, which is entering its ninth season, posters and entry forms encouraging students to read over the summer are mailed to schools at which educators are represented by the MTA. The effort also includes public service announcements and a variety of other features that promote achievement in school.

Most Valuable Educators

The Most Valuable Educator program, for example, gives high school students a chance to nominate teachers and ESPs for recognition during Red Sox games by writing 500-word essays about their contributions to the community.

In PSAs scheduled to air over the summer on New England Sports Network and WEEI radio, Varitek notes that “practice makes perfect” and says that the adage applies to summer reading.

“The more kids read, the better they do in school,” he says. “You can’t get a hit if you don’t get into the game, so get into the Red Sox Reading Game – because reading matters.”

This year’s posters and contest entry forms, which will be mailed out in late May, will show Varitek and Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster reading Pitching with the Papelbons. Through words and illustrations, the children’s book depicts a Little League game in which the pitching Papelbon brothers are on the field.

While Jonathan Papelbon is the star Red Sox closer, his younger brothers, who are twins, also play professional baseball. Joshua currently is in the Red Sox’ minor leagues, and Jeremy is working his way up through the Chicago Cubs’ farm system. As kids growing up in Mississippi, they all played for their father on the same Little League team.

Pitching with the Papelbons co-author Jon Goode is the vice president of communications for the Lowell Spinners, where both Jonathan and Joshua have played at different times in their careers. He noted that he has three young children and constantly reads to them.

“One day when I was reading, it just suddenly hit me,” Goode said of the idea for the book. “I see kids wearing Papelbon shirts all the time, and we felt a children's book based on the Papelbons as kids would be a huge success.”

Proceeds from the book’s sales will benefit C2 Mission, a non-profit that helps New England families affected by cerebral palsy and cystic fibrosis.

To take part in the MTA Red Sox Reading Game, students are required to pledge to their parents that they will read nine books over the summer. That commitment is reflected on cards sent to the MTA. In late summer, 100 of the forms are selected at random, and the children who have submitted them get to attend a game at Fenway Park.

Five students, one from each region of the state, are selected as grand prize winners. They get a behind-the-scenes tour of Fenway and go out onto the field to meet Varitek during a pre-game recognition ceremony.

The idea is to merge students’ love of the Red Sox with a love of reading. The contest provides an incentive for students to stick to the books when they are away from school and reading skills are known to slip.

Luke Proto, who was a grand prize winner last year, is a good example of the contest’s impact. Luke worked with a tutor over the summer in order to read the required nine books.

“It showed him that his hard work does pay off,” said Luke’s father, Dave Proto, adding that the experience has had lasting benefits. “Luke’s reading level has increased significantly and his confidence has gone up tremendously,” Proto said.

Although the game is designed to promote summer reading, educators across Massachusetts know that baseball can be used as a powerful tool during the school year, as well.

In Stoughton, reading teacher Lori Labrecque celebrated the opening week of the baseball season by sharing passages about Nolan Ryan, Jim Rice, Steve Garvey, Billy Martin and Willie Stargell with her students.

“Each passage has multiple-choice comprehension questions which follow it,” LaBrecque said.

As part of the recent Read Across America celebration in Sudbury, the class that read the most books won a visit from the local superintendent.

Teacher Brad Jones’ second-grade class won the contest by reading 144 books. Jones, who described the superintendent as a “notorious Yankees fan,” motivated his students by telling them that if they won they could rub in the Red Sox’ winning record by crafting a Seuss-like verse about the team.

 “I've asked my students to think up Seuss-like rhymes that show the Sox in a positive light,” Jones said, adding that the joke will be on his superintendent. “My goal is for him to have to read all of these rhymes to my kids while wearing a Red Sox championship hat.”

Reading Matters was originally created by the MTA to administer the collaboration with the Red Sox. But over the last several years, the non-profit has evolved into the umbrella organization for the MTA’s broader campaign to promote student achievement in a number of curriculum areas. These days, the MTA Boston Celtics Honor Roll program rewards students with a B average or perfect attendance. The Bruins by the Numbers program promotes math by asking students to complete age-appropriate problems based on hockey. The Music Matters initiative, conducted along with classical radio station WCRB, sends members of the New Philharmonia Orchestra around the state to visit schools and talk to students.

And who knows what will come next as the MTA, reflecting the dedication and commitment of its 107,000 members, continues to do everything it can to help students succeed?

For information on Reading Matters programs and tips on promoting student achievement, visit http://readingmatters.org.