Caravan gets Braves' 2012 off to a quality start

Players, coaches share baseball with kids ages 7-14

By Jon Cooper / Special to | 01/28/12 7:15 PM EST

In baseball, there's no such thing as too early to make a difference. That's why statisticians consider a team's record when it scores first significant.
Life can work the same way, as it's never too early to make a difference in a child's life.
Through the Atlanta Braves Caravan, the team made a positive difference in the lives of some 200 youngsters on Saturday afternoon, when the Caravan kicked off its 2012 tour by making an appearance at the Jerry Clark Foundation's Fourth Annual Winter Baseball Camp.
Clark, who also runs a Junior RBI program for kids ages 6-12, began his foundation, which is dedicated to stressing academics and athletics as an alternative for youth.
"It's never too soon," he said. "I try to catch them at a young age, before they start making bad choices and decisions -- and then the consequences that come with it aren't good.
"For a lot of these kids, this is their first experience with baseball," he added. "It's their first time having a glove in their hand. Their parents -- or mom or grandmom -- went and bought them a glove just for this camp. That makes me feel very, very special to be able to do this, and to be a partner with the Atlanta Braves and give back to the community. I'm thrilled to have them. It's been a great partnership."
The kids -- between ages 7-14 -- were also thrilled to see Braves coaches Terry Pendleton and Brian Snitker, and players Eric Hinske, Jair Jurrjens and Eric O'Flaherty.
Of course, the thrill was anything but a one-way street.
"It's cool," said Hinske, with a big smile. "I feel lucky to be here. It's great the Braves do it, get to go around, help kids out, sign autographs, do camps. It's a great program."
Jurrjens was participating in his first camp as a pro, but recalled seeing pros organize camps like Saturday's when he was growing up in Curacao.
"The hitting coach for the Giants [Hensley Muelens], when he was with the Yankees, brought Bernie Williams. Bernie had just gotten to the big leagues," recalled Jurrjens. "I think [former Braves] Javy [Lopez] and Ryan Klesko came one time to Curacao to do a clinic. It's always a great feeling to see superstars right in front of your eyes."
O'Flaherty also remembered the experience of getting instruction from pro players growing up in Washington state.
"The Mariners would do this kind of stuff around the Northwest," O'Flaherty said. "It was always cool to be around big league players. I remember that feeling, and I wanted to kind of give these kids the same one."
For approximately 90 minutes, O'Flaherty and his teammates and coaches, as well as a couple of others from the local baseball community -- Los Angeles Dodgers shortstop Dee Gordon and Clark-Atlanta University head baseball coach Derwin McNealy -- did just that.
The inside of the warehouse was split into quadrants, with batting cages against each wall, where Pendleton taught hitting techniques and set up tees on one side, while Snitker threw underhand toss to hitters on the other. In the middle was a large open space, with makeshift platforms serving as pitcher's mounds, where Jurrjens and O'Flaherty provided instruction. Sandwiched in between the left-side batting cage manned by Pendleton and the pitching area, was an enclosed area where Hinske was in charge of teaching fielding techniques.
Only moments after the kids were divided into four groups, the humongous space came to life -- with the sounds of baseballs hitting bats, thrown balls thumping into catcher's mitts, and yells of "I got it" followed by the snapping of gloves around baseballs.
"The best part is to see the kids smile, see the kids have a good time in here, and learn about baseball and learn how important academics are -- getting it together," said Pendleton. "Not only being a smart baseball player, but a smart student. That's real important. The biggest thrill we get out of it is to see the smiling faces in there."
There were plenty of smiles, as Pendleton animatedly illustrated proper stance, weight shift and follow through techniques, then stood and watched the ball zoom off the tee as his pupils implemented what they had just seen.
In the next quadrant, Hinske was rolling ground balls and lofting fly balls -- the latter occasionally bumping up against the ceiling beams -- and instructing kids on the proper ways to catch the ball. On one occasion, his fly ball missed its intended target's glove, instead bouncing off the young girl's shoulder. Almost guiltily, he cringed, then lofted her another ball. She caught it and he beamed, pumping his fist and shouting some encouragement.
In the pitching area, after running a variety of drills, to perfect throwing motion, the kids lined up behind one of the six mounds, staring in at their corresponding home plates. They then did their best to hit the target -- more frequently getting a piece of the catchers, who often wore "grin-and-bear-it" expressions before laughing off whatever pain they might have received from bounced pitches.
Against the other wall, five other batting cages were set up. Snitker stood about 10 feet away behind a pitching screen and tossed underhanded pitches. There were moments of exhilaration for Snitker when his words of advice were heeded, leading to improved results.
There were also moments for him to teach baseball and life lessons.
"Sometimes, you swing and miss in this game," he told one boy loud enough for those waiting in line to hear. "All of us do."
The clinic -- open to girls and boys -- also included six hearing-impaired children.
"A lot of these kids were just so excited to see the Braves," said Jai Ferrell, who volunteers for Clark when she's not working with PlanON Sports, a high school sports media company. "One family [came] here from Chattanooga [Tenn.] this morning, just to be here."
As the day wound down and the Braves said their goodbyes and offered final words of encouragement, there was a feeling of satisfaction about having made a positive difference.
"They're taking away more than just baseball from something like this," said Snitker. "They're really a high-energy group of kids, I'll tell you that. It's a great opportunity for them."
"It's definitely cool," added Hinske. "You realize that you're kind of a big deal. We don't think of ourselves in that way. But the kids see us, and they look up at us when we have our jerseys on. It's real neat to be able to touch someone like that."