Current, former Braves surprise local youth

Wisler, Smith among those taking part in 'Play Ball' initiative

Current, former Braves surprise local youth

ATLANTA -- There's something unique about the phrase "Play Ball."

Whether a Major Leaguer, a former Major Leaguer or an aspiring one, those two words hold a special place.

You could have asked any of the above about that on Saturday morning at Clarkdale Park in Austell, Ga., as current Braves rookies Matt Wisler and Mallex Smith and former teammates Javy Lopez and Brad Clontz represented the team at the Southwest Baseball Association's annual Early Bird All-Star Baseball Tournament as part of Major League Baseball's "Play Ball Weekend" initiative.

Complete Youth Baseball coverage

"It was great," said Lopez, a 15-year Major Leaguer and three-time All-Star who played with the Braves from 1992 through 2003. "I love to see the kids having fun. That's what we did today, bring a smile to the kids, to the parents, and they make us feel great."

"Just watching the kids light up with the surprise of not knowing we were going to be here, to see the kids smiling and giving us high-fives was pretty exciting," said Clontz, who pitched six seasons in the Majors (1995 to 2000), the first three in Atlanta. "We like to inspire them and get them excited about baseball."

Former and current Braves played some ball with the kids, then took to the coaching lines.

Wisler got into his role coaching first base for the 12U game between the Southwest All-Stars and the New Hope Stringers, but admitted he didn't really face as difficult a task as Braves first-base coach Eddie Perez.

"I was mostly high-fiving kids once they got on base," Wisler said, smiling.

He certainly didn't do anything to earn a daredevil reputation.

"Not really. I didn't send anybody to second base," he said. "Everything was [hit] kind of right in front of the outfielders, so not too aggressive today."

On another field, Smith manned third and Clontz took first for the 10U game between the Southwest All-Stars and the Winston Wolfpack.

Both got into the action, with Smith particularly animated.

"I had to make sure the kids knew that I was into it," Smith said, smiling. "I had to get into the umpire about his strike zone. I was trying to distract the third basemen for both teams just in case my guy wanted to drop a bunt. I just wanted to help the team win."

Final scores aside, everyone won -- including a pair of raffle winners, who got to yell "Play Ball!" on the field at Turner Field prior to the Braves' Saturday afternoon game with the Marlins.

"The kids love it," said Kelvin Davis, coach of the 10U Southwest Sox. "They didn't know the Braves were coming out -- they got very excited when they saw the bus pull up. So it means a lot to them to have the Braves come out here and watch them play."

"It was awesome, because it was my first time being on the field with actual Major League Baseball players," said 12U Southwest All-Stars shortstop Lincoln Henry, an Atlanta native who wears No. 42 for Jackie Robinson and hopes to play in the Majors.

Giving kids that opportunity and getting out into the community is what such initiatives as "Play Ball" are all about.

"This shows their commitment to the fans," added Clontz, who went from the Austell event to coach a 15U game in East Cobb County. "They never forget about the fans first, and that's what drives them to be the best."

The message wasn't lost on the Braves' rookies, who shared a similar reaction.

"It was awesome," said Smith. "It makes you understand how fun and genuine the game is."

"It's always an honor for us to come out here and spend time with them," said Wisler. "It was fun for them to see us, it was good for us to get out and interact with the kids and to see their reactions."

Jon Cooper is a contributor to MLB.com based in Atlanta. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.