MLB alumni engage kids at Arizona clinic

'Legends for Youth' offers free lessons from retired players

TEMPE, Ariz. -- For one sun-drenched Saturday morning, the timeless allure of baseball beat out cellphones, video games and all the other electronic distractions often blamed for damaging the physical fitness of children.

About 100 mostly excited children learned the fundamentals of baseball from a group of former Major League players who volunteered their time and expertise at one of more than 150 Legends for Youth clinics planned for this year, nationally and internationally, by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

Another 150 children were registered to attend another clinic the next day in Scottsdale.

MLBPAA hosts youth clinic

Nikki Warner, a spokeswoman for the association, said the organization has sponsored the clinics for 19 years. She estimates that about 15,000 children and 800 alumni will participate in the clinics this year. The clinics have been held in most of the United States and in other countries such as Canada, the Dominican Republic, Nicaragua, Venezuela, the United Kingdom and Germany.

In an event that focused on the joy of playing an inherently American sport dating back to the Civil War, children learned how to round first base properly during baserunning drills and how to throw the ball overhand, not sidearm, in infield drills.

The children and parents who attended the clinic on a practice field at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Angels' home for Spring Training, seemed to appreciate the unique opportunity to learn how to play the game from those who have reached baseball's highest level.

"It just means more," said Angelo Morales, 12, a Little Leaguer from Tolleson, a small community west of Phoenix. "They made it to the highest level."

Sonia and Noah Morales, Angelo's parents, said they appreciated the top-level instruction to their son, free of charge.

"I think you want your son taught the best way to do things. It's the correct way to do things," Noah Morales said, adding that he does not wish to belittle the efforts of Little League coaches who might not have the same level of experience.

Sonia Morales said parents fight a battle against the appeal of video games and other sedentary pursuits.

She said she tells her son, "You love sports, you're good at sports, get out there."

Aiden Wood, 10, of Chandler, a suburban city east of Phoenix, said he was thankful for the opportunity to attend the clinic.

"It helped me a lot. It taught me the different mechanics of how to throw, how to run the bases and how to swing the bat," he said.

When asked whether the clinic motivated him to continue playing baseball, Aiden said matter-of-factly, "I'm planning on the Major Leagues."

Kimberly Walentiny of Gilbert, another suburb east of Phoenix, said her son, Anthony Sullivan, 12, picked the clinic over a practice with his usual team, thinking he would learn more about baseball.

"The players are fantastic. You can't put a dollar amount on it. I think it's really cool," Walentiny said.

The retired players seemed to enjoy the event as much as the kids. They included former pitchers Brett Merriman, Albie Lopez, Leslie Brea, Buddy Schultz and Scott Brow, and former middle infielder Mike Sember.

Sember, who played in 12 games for the Cubs in 1977 and '78, taught such fundamentals as keeping the glove close to the ground and throwing overhand in infield drills. He complimented the children but also gave them suggestions on how to improve.

"There's always one or two kids at the end of the day who say, "Thanks, coach Mike, I appreciate it," Sember said. "It's a cliche but it's our way of giving back."

Merriman said he mainly was taught the game by his mother growing up in a small town in Missouri. He said he had minimal coaching and enjoys the opportunity to help children learn the game.

"I like to see kids having fun. I like to see kids outside in the sun having fun, not behind an Xbox," Merriman said. "Every time I get an email [about an upcoming clinic], I jump at it. I love this stuff."

Brea also serves as a volunteer freshman coach in Goodyear, a suburb west of Phoenix. He always stresses fundamentals, the cerebral side of pitching and the value of education. He admits he feels like a babysitter at times, but he also realizes he is giving children knowledge of the game they would not receive otherwise.

"Our youth nowadays are distracted by the cellphones and the Xbox. I don't see the talent or the drive like when I was growing up," Brea said.

But that description hardly fits Joey Stroebel Jr., 9, of Goodyear.

"These kids look up to these players," said Joey Strobel Sr. "My son couldn't wait to get out of bed and come here. He was excited. I really appreciate it."

Jim Walsh is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.