Red Sox prospect started the event following Sandy Hook tragedy
By Tim Healey
NEWTOWN, Conn. -- The elementary school-aged ballplayer was still rubbing the sleep out of his eyes on Sunday morning when he walked into the Newtown Youth Academy. He couldn't quite believe that this familiar face was standing right in front of him.
"Do you play for the Giants?" the youngster asked, not quite ready to believe his gut, but astutely noting the man's black-and-orange sweatshirt.
Smiles ensued, and that was only the beginning. The Giants second baseman was in town with a handful of other Major and Minor Leaguers to assist with a free kids baseball clinic, hosted by Red Sox pitching prospect Matt Barnes, for about 200 7- to 15-year-olds.
It was the second year in a row Barnes put together the clinic following the Dec. 14, 2012, shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary. Barnes grew up in Bethel -- which neighbors Newtown in western Connecticut -- playing against Newtown teams, on Newtown fields.
When unimaginable tragedy struck, Barnes' greater social conscience kicked in. He wanted to help the community heal.
"I knew I wanted to do something," said Barnes, who is ranked as Boston's No. 11 prospect, according to MLB.com. "What better way for me to do it than through baseball?"
And so Barnes used his connections to make it happen. He enlisted the help of USA Baseball, whose collegiate team he played with before going pro. He called up one of his college buddies, Astros outfielder George Springer, himself a native of nearby New Britain, Conn., who was immediately down to join. This year, Panik, who is from not-too-far-away Hopewell Junction, N.Y., entered the fold.
Also helping out on the instruction end was A's pitcher Evan Scribner, plus Minor Leaguers Troy Scribner (Astros), Conor Bierfeldt (Orioles), Alex McKeon (Red Sox), Zach Albin (Orioles) and about a dozen collegiate players. All of the athletes have local ties.
Free-agent lefty Craig Breslow, a Yale product from the area, also made an appearance.
"It's good to be a part of it and have some fun with these kids," Springer said. "Because of the events that led into [Barnes' idea to give back], it's a sad day, but just to help and be a part of this and give back to the state, and the town, is obviously great."
Barnes' clinic this year coincided with the halfway mark of the "26 Days of Kindness," a stretch during which folks are encouraged to engage in charitable endeavors in honor of the 26 Sandy Hook victims.
For about four hours on Sunday, Barnes and the others presented a segment of the community an opportunity to escape any feelings that might be brought up by the approaching second anniversary of the shooting.
In one corner, Springer helped his attentive pupils practice their drop-step on outfield routes. In another, Barnes went over basic pitching mechanics. Later, Panik examined some kids' double-play turns before taking a moment to realize, hey, it was only about a decade ago he was in their shoes, a young kid just happy to play ball.
"It's something special that [Barnes is] doing, and obviously, you want to be a part of something like this," Panik said. "To be doing something for these kids, it's something that anybody should want to do. That's why I'm happy Matt asked me to do this."
Barnes said he'll come back next year, and the Newtown Youth Academy certainly welcomes that idea. Why not, especially with the deep and talented supporting cast willing to lend a few hours?
"Not only does it show how good friends they are," Barnes said, "but it really shows how much they care about giving back to the community as well, wanting to come out and help the kids have a fun day.
"I'm very fortunate to have guys like that."
Each of the two sessions concluded with giveaways -- baseballs, photos and bats signed by the ballplayers-turned-teachers. A set of Yankees tickets incited more hushed excitement from the kids than the Red Sox ones did, drawing a bit of playful ire from Barnes.
But that's OK by him. It was, after all, about the kids. They left with a greater understanding of some fundamentals, perhaps, and a long-lasting memory for sure.
"It'll give them," Panik said, "something to smile at."
Tim Healey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.