Baseball brightens day for NorCal fire victims

Semien, Knapp among big league volunteers at fundraising clinic

January 6th, 2018

SANTA ROSA, Calif. -- For a community that in October was changed forever by a furious firestorm, baseball brought a semblance of renewal Friday as young players gathered for a first step back to the diamond following some trying times.

On a drizzly Northern California day, a baseball clinic was held inside the Epicenter sports and entertainment center in Santa Rosa, mere blocks from the Coffey Park neighborhood devastated by the Tubbs Fire, which swept into the city Oct. 9. The event brought Major League, Minor League and college ballplayers and coaches together with boys and girls eager for the fresh start that comes with the year's first pop of the glove and crack of the bat.

Kevin Wood, president of nearby Mark West Springs Youth Baseball, knows how much this baseball community needed to turn the page toward a brighter day. Of the 435 players in the Mark West Springs program, Wood said 110 lost their homes in the firestorm, and a couple dozen more were displaced for weeks or months.

"It's surreal, absolutely surreal," Wood said of the gathering. "To have all these players out here and all the kids, it's just amazing to see the community come together."

For Mark West players Jordon and Mason Niel, whose family lost its home in the firestorm, the Friday event was a real breath of fresh air.

"It's nice to get back to normal, playing baseball and everything, and not have to worry about all the stuff that's happened," Jordon said.

A's shortstop , Phillies catcher and former Major Leaguers Noah Lowry, Jason Lane and Eric Bruntlett led the contingent of professional players and instructors who brought some big league excitement to the event -- all of them leaping at the opportunity to help out a good cause.

"It's really easy to come over here and help anybody who's less fortunate and anybody who lost their homes," Semien said. "To use the game of baseball as a tool to bring everybody together is what I'm all about."

Said Knapp: "You feel for everyone, some who lost everything. It's just so devastating. If we can bring a little light to them today and have a little fun while we're doing it, that's awesome."

The brainchild of Tony Arnerich and Kasey Olenberger, two Santa Rosa-area natives with professional baseball backgrounds, the clinic raised funds via fees and auctions for fire victims to replace baseball equipment, allowing players who lost their homes to participate for free. It attracted some 220 participants, and Olenberger said they had to turn away another 50 because the clinic was full.

"When Tony and I first talked about this, we had no idea what it was going to turn into," said Olenberger, a pitcher who reached Triple-A and competed internationally for Team Italy in 2008. "We just said, 'Hey, we've got to do this because both of us were born and bred here.' The response has been amazing."

For many of the professional players, a key connection was Arnerich, a former hitting coach at Cal and current catching coordinator for the Seattle Mariners organization. Semien and Knapp are among those who were coached by him at Cal, and it was a "quick yes," as Semien put it, to get them to help this cause.

Epicenter donated the use of its three indoor soccer facilities and gymnasium to conduct the clinics.

"When I heard Tony was planning this, I reached out to him before he even asked me," Knapp said. "I wanted to be involved."

For Arnerich, having it all come together for the benefit of those affected by the fires is a home run -- emphasis on home.

"It's just great the time people are putting in to just hopefully put a smile on some kids' faces and get them with a glove in their hand," he said.

The Niel boys were just ready to get back into baseball mode.

"It's fun to go around the different rotations and get back into baseball," said Mason, wearing a Santa Rosa Fire Department cap -- his father, Tony, is a firefighter with SRFD. "Baseball was stopped in the middle of the [season] for fall ball because of the fires, so it's been kind of a long time, but now we're getting back to it."

The green pastures of the baseball season are not far away for a community rising from the ashes.

"Baseball's around the corner," Wood said. "This is a great way to bring everybody together and jump-start everything again."