Baseball bonds all ages at Legends for Youth Clinic

Eight former big leaguers – and about 60 aspiring ones – gathered at The Ripken Experience complex on Saturday for the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Assocation’s Legends for Youth Clinic.

In addition to learning the finer points of pitching, hitting and fielding from veterans who played the game at the highest level, the Little Leaguers also received some powerful big-league life lessons.

“How many of you want to play in the majors?” nine-year MLB veteran Herm Winningham asked the group as hands raised in unison. “That’s great, and I hope you make it, but there are only 750 jobs. You need a contingency plan.”

Words of wisdom off the diamond and pro tips on it were all part of the free clinic for ages 6-16. With many of the vets well past their primes, baseball served to bridge the generational divide.

“I remember being their age and how much fun it was,” said former Philadelphia Phillies catcher and current Myrtle Beach Pelicans manager Steve Lerud. “Now it’s a job for me. I’m working with guys who are trying to make it to the majors and sometimes the fun gets taken out of it for the results on the field, so it’s refreshing to be around these kids and be reminded of why we got into baseball.”

The MLB veterans, including Alan Fowlkes (Giants, Angels), Rich Gale, (Giants, Royals, Reds, Red Sox), Billy Harris (Indians, Royals), Brian Lawrence (Padres, Mets), Larry Luebbers (Reds, Cardinals) and Kurt Seibert (Cubs), made sure to stress the “fun” in the fundamentals. They not only demonstrated basic baseball skills, but also imparted some sound life advice to some enthusiastic admirers.

“I love them because they taught me a lot,” said 7-year-old Rutger Moore of Murrells Inlet. “They told us to play hard like we did today, stay in school and don’t do drugs. I learned that instead of waiting for the ball to come to you, you have to attack it.”

Groundballs are a lot like life (it’s all in how you handle it), and that point was hammered home by Winningham. The Orangeburg native toiled away in the majors for four different teams from 1984 to ’92, and he seized his golden opportunity when it presented itself in the 1990 World Series.

The reserve outfielder for the Cincinnati Reds stepped in for the injured Brian Hatcher, batting .386 (5-for-13) in the postseason. Winningham went 2-for-3 and scored the game-winning and World Series-clinching run in Game 4 to earn his championship ring in a sweep of the heavily favored Oakland Athletics.

“That was my time, but a lot of hard work and sacrifice went into it,” Winningham recalled. “You might not get your opportunity as fast as you want it, but you have to work hard to be ready when your time comes. Hard work pays off. I don’t care if it’s baseball or whatever you do, you have to put in the time. I’m so glad I get the opportunity to pass that on to the next generation.”

The MLBPAA puts on 185 free clinics worldwide every year, reaching 19,000 children and countless more through the coaches clinics.

“The coaches clinics are great because we teach things like how old a kid should be before throwing a curveball and things to educate (youth coaches),” said MLBPAA special events coordinator Chloe Hoeft. “If we can reach one coach, we reach 20 kids.”

Who knows? One of those kids could turn out to be the next big thing in the big leagues.

“All these kids have the same aspirations of playing Major League Baseball,” Winningham said. “Not all of them are going to make it, but every once in a while you will see one of these kids make it in the big leagues that come from this program. That’s rewarding in itself.”

Photos by Terry Massey

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