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Simmons, Braves enjoy time on Caravan stop

Shortstop will play for Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic

Special to
ATLANTA -- Andrelton Simmons wasn't quite sure what went wrong on Tuesday morning. At the first stop of the 2013 Braves Country Caravan, Simmons put his air hockey skills to the test against two young patients at Children's Healthcare of Atlanta at Scottish Rite, and lost. Twice.

But Simmons didn't let the defeats spoil his fun.

"Putting a smile on their face makes us happy, too," Simmons said. "You feel like you're doing something positive, so that's always good. Whenever we can do this, it's a pleasure."

On the first day of the Caravan, which will make stops across the Southeast over the next two weeks, Simmons, infielder Paul Janish and pitchers Tim Hudson and Jonny Venters visited with children in the hospital before moving on to autograph sessions in nearby Cumming, Ga.

At the hospital, the group, which also included manager Fredi Gonzalez, had the opportunity to help brighten the days of some of their younger fans before the grind of Spring Training arrives.

"We really enjoy this," Gonzalez said. "We enjoy it as much as the kids do."

For Simmons, who dazzled at shortstop as a rookie last season, this was not his first time traveling with the Caravan. He had an opportunity to participate last year, but now he has a higher profile among Braves fans.

Simmons said he didn't think the fans were treating him any differently on Tuesday than they did last year, but he knows once the season starts, they will have higher expectations for him.

"Last year, I guess, the team didn't expect me to do much because I was a rookie," Simmons said. "But I want to be someone they rely on. I want to be somebody they look for to set the tone."

Simmons also enters Spring Training with a different mindset than last season. A year ago, Simmons was in a competition with Tyler Pastornicky to become the starting shortstop. Simmons made the competition closer than some expected, but ultimately started the year at Double-A Mississippi.

Two months into the season, however, the Braves called him up to replace Pastornicky. Simmons didn't look back, overcoming a broken pinkie that forced him to miss two months after the All-Star break. He hit .289 with a .335 on-base percentage and established himself as one of the best defensive shortstops in the Major Leagues.

With his place on the Braves' roster secure, Simmons said he will use Spring Training differently this year.

"Last year I had to fight for a spot, so I wasn't really working on stuff that much in games," he said. "This year, I'll get more chances to work on stuff than I did last year."

Simmons may not be with the Braves for long once Spring Training games start, however. He will play for the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, which he is looking forward to.

"It's going to be pretty exciting, and we've got a pretty good team, too," Simmons said.

Four years ago, in the last Classic, the Netherlands upset the Dominican Republic to advance to the second round. Simmons wasn't a part of that team, but he said their success has raised the bar for this year's squad.

"It motivates us," Simmons said. "We know what we're able to do. We're going to go in with a little higher expectations."

Part of what excites Simmons about the chance to play in the Classic is the competitive atmosphere of the games.

"I guess the World Baseball Classic is going to be pretty intense," Simmons said. "That atmosphere is going to make me more game ready. It's going to be fun."

While Simmons is excited to represent the Netherlands for the first time, Gonzalez said he is anxious about the tournament. He said he will be nervous from the time Simmons and the other Braves players who are playing in the Classic leave camp to join their national teams until they return.

"[The World Baseball Classic] really is fun for the fans," Gonzalez said. "But I will not sleep well until we get those guys back to our team."

On Tuesday, Simmons was content to bring out his competitiveness while interacting with the children at the hospital. While his teammates signed autographs, helped with arts and crafts and played Wii baseball, Simmons was busy knocking the air hockey puck around.

"I almost had him," Simmons said. "In the first game, he came back, beat me. In the second game, I was coming back and then he shut the door and got me again. It was fun though."

Teddy Cahill is a contributor to

Atlanta Braves, Andrelton Simmons