Clinic brings in knowledge of former Major Leaguers
November 02, 2009
By ANDREW MIKULA
Jim Rooker has pitched in a World Series for a winning team and wears the ring to prove it.
Yet by his own admission, had he decided to be stubborn and inflexible, he might never have gotten the chance to play with that 1979 Pittsburgh Pirates team. One of Rooker's messages to some 200 local youngsters last weekend at the Indian Trails Sports Complex in Palm Coast was to keep your mind open to new possibilities.
Rooker said he was two seasons into his pro career as an outfielder in the Detroit Tigers organization when he was asked to throw batting practice during spring training in 1964. Gradually they asked him to speed up his pitches and he remarked that if he threw any faster, the hitters wouldn't have been able to get around on it.
He agreed to do it and after chucking heat at a few hitters, Rooker was asked if he'd ever considered pitching. He hadn't -- he'd been an outfielder since he was a kid -- but he thought why not?
A year later Rooker was in the big leagues as a left-handed reliever and the next year he started 22 games for the Kansas City Royals, winning four of the 103 W's he would accumulate in a 13-year career. A career, by the way, that included three appearances in the postseason as part of Pittsburgh's "Lumber Company" of the 1970s.
"I was lucky enough to play in the big leagues and most of you probably won't be, but that doesn't mean you should give up," Rooker said.
He was one of seven former Major League Baseball players who donated a part of their Saturday afternoon to share tips with the young baseball players in the Little League, PAL and AAU loops of Flagler County. They also included Woody Woodward, Jackie Brandt, Gerry Fosnow, Rick Reichardt, Hal King and Butch Benton, some donning the uniform tops of the teams they played with, and all with special skills and advice to share.
"This is a joy," said Woodward, a Hammock Dunes resident and owner of his own World Series ring. "I get to see guys I haven't seen in years and get to watch young ballplayers."
The most important part of the clinic was its link to KinderVision, a national charity tied to Major League Baseball that develops educational programs for parents, police, children and young adults to protect youngsters from sexual predators. The proceeds from the weekend of activities, which included an auction of drawings of former baseball players and baseballs autographed by such players as Adrian Gonzalez of the San Diego Padres and Mark "Perfect Game" Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox.
One of the stations all the players visited was the KinderVision presentation in the first-base dugout.
Doug Sebastian, executive director and founder of KinderVision, said he was thrilled with the response from the seven players who came, and some of the Hall of Famers like Harmon Killebrew, Gaylord Perry and Steve Carlton who were in town for the charity golf tournament and dinner to benefit his organization. Dennis Rasmussen, Ray Lankford and Jose Cruz Jr. were some of the other ex-Major Leaguers who teed it up at the Ocean Course at Hammock Beach on Monday.
"We've had people travel here from Missouri, Michigan, Massachusetts and that's significant," said Sebastian, who founded KinderVision in Oceanside, Calif., 20 years ago. "We're thrilled with the response the community has given, Jeremy, Dusty and the ballplayers from Flagler Palm Coast and Matanzas. It let's these kids know that they matter. Education is the only thing we've got to protect our kids."
As organizers readied the start of the afternoon's activities, the former Major Leaguers stood behind the chain link backstop and signed autographs and bantered with the youngsters. Only at a clinic like this would a kid wearing a Yankees T-shirt muster up the nerve to walk up to Brandt, who donned a San Francisco Giants jersey in honor of one of five big league clubs he played for in the 1960s and 1970s.
"Marker. Marker," Brandt said with a smile as he looked around the throng of kids for a pen. "I've got to put my name on a ball I hit in 1912."
Major League Baseball representative Mike Groll grabbed a wireless microphone and began the introductions of the veterans and explained the ground rules for the two-hour clinic. Groll encouraged the participants to stay in their group, pay close attention and do their best to follow instructions and, most importantly, hustle between the stations set up at the far flung corners of the main Indian Trails ball diamond.
Matanzas baseball coach Jeremy Kitson, a couple of his assistant coaches and group of Flagler Palm Coast high school assistants -- minus head skipper Dusty Sims, who broke an ankle the night before sliding in a softball game in Ormond Beach -- were joined by players from Matanzas and FPC to help run the clinic -- and they picked up a tip or two themselves. Some of the Bulldogs gathered in a circle and limbered up with a quick game of hot potato while Groll and Rooker talked to the kids.
Fairly soon, it was time to choose up teams, grouped by ages 7 to 9, 10 through 12, and 13 and up and the clinic started. The ballplayers headed off to their stations and got ready to greet them. On the third base side of the infield, Woodward and Kitson talked to kids about the proper way to field groundballs and throw to first.
"I'm not looking for hard throws," Woodward said as the kids scooped up the balls he rolled out to them. "I'm looking for good technique."
Over at first base, Brandt talked about baserunning to a group of young players, some of whom don't do such things as talked leads or steal a base in their leagues. Still, Brandt, an outfielder and one of the better all-around players of his era, told them to run to first and concentrate on hitting the inside of the bag rather than taking a wide turn at first that makes the running line to second longer than it needs to be.
Brandt was amused as the kids did belly flops diving back to first on pickoffs. He encouraged them to challenge pitchers into making mistakes on pickoffs.
"When you think you have a good lead, take one more big step," Brandt said.
Fosnow, a former Minnesota Twins pitcher a win on opening day in 1965 against the New York Yankees, demonstrated pitching tips in right field. King, over from Oviedo, gave hitting tips in right center, watching with FPC assistant Hector Caraballo as the youngsters banged baseballs off batting tees.
In far left field, Benton sported a National League All-Star jersey as he talked about the finer points of playing the outfield. Off to Benton's left, Reichardt and Rooker used the soft toss drill for instruction -- with varying degrees of success -- on the proper way to bunt.
"I know that for most of you, bunting is not your most favorite thing to do," Rooker said to a group of 20 7- to 9-year-olds. "But bunting is very important in baseball and sometimes bunting can win a ballgame for you."