MLB alumni offer lessons, instruction to kids at Tropicana Field clinic

Nearly 200 youth baseball players gathered at Tropicana Field on Saturday morning to participate in a two-hour clinic conducted by the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.

Saturday's clinic, one of 151 the MLBPAA plans to hold throughout 2016, consisted of seven training stations -- pitching, catching, infield, outfield, hitting, throwing and baserunning -- that were each manned by former Major League players.

Included among the instructors were Rays alumni Mike DiFelice (catching), Jason Johnson (baserunning) and Andrew Sonnanstine (pitching), along with current Rays television analyst Orestes Destrade (hitting).

"We want kids to touch the field, be around former ballplayers, learn a few lessons and have fun," said Nikki Warner, the MLBPAA's director of communications.

"It's all about promoting the game of baseball and providing some life lessons as well."

The participants, ranging from age 4 through 15, were members of Burg Baseball, a St Petersburg-based youth group that serves as the local affiliate for Cal Ripken Baseball and Babe Ruth Baseball

"We're trying to get more kids involved in baseball, and the Rays have been our partners and supporting us for many years now," said Burg Baseball president Charles Castle III. "This is the second straight year the Rays have invited us to this clinic, and it's been a great experience for our kids. They love it, and the parents are just shocked that they get to go to the Rays' stadium."

Excitement among the players had reached fever pitch well before the scheduled 9:00 a.m. start time, much to the delight of Castle and Burg Baseball vice president Cliff Williams.

"Kids that typically struggle in the morning to get up for school were up before their parents today," said Williams with a grin.

Added Castle, "They were all here in the parking lot at 8:00, bright-eyed, bushy-tailed and ready to go."

Destrade, one of the Tampa Bay area's most popular sports personalities, was a big "hit" throughout the session, trading his microphone for a bat to demonstrate the finer points of swing mechanics -- and the importance of concentration -- as his students launched baseballs off a tee.

"It's always fun, especially when they're this eager and really want to be here," said the ever-upbeat Destrade. "You can tell that these St. Pete kids wanted to be here, and not only that, but they get to be on a Major League field. That is not something everybody gets a chance to do, so that's a pretty big deal. 

And what's it like to step out from behind the camera and deal with young Rays fans face to face?

"Oh, it's outstanding," beamed Destrade. "As the groups got a little older, I really appreciated being able to not just teach them some actual physical skills, but I was also able to talk about some of the essentials that they need in this game. 

And he didn't sugarcoat.

"The main message I gave them about baseball is that it's a repetitive game and that it's how you practice -- and proper practice -- that really matters because if you practice incorrectly and you do it 200 times, well, you're going be in big trouble.

"I think they really got that … they appreciated that, and they realize that this game of baseball is not easy, and it takes a lot of practice."