ST. PETERSBURG -- The next generation of ballplayers learned from veterans of the game in a Major League setting Saturday morning, picking up invaluable knowledge to take with them on their ongoing journey.
The Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association hosted one of its many free youth clinics, as 10 former pros with Tampa ties passed down tools of the trade from generation to generation.
The 75 youth players, ages 6 to 16, scattered from station to station participating in drills teaching hitting, fielding grounders, when to time your jump on a steal, how to frame pitches behind the plate, how to lay down the perfect bunt, and much more.
"You're trying to give back, especially in a community where this is home," said Roberto Hernandez, a two-time All-Star relief pitcher with 17 years of service under his belt. "Why keep something that you can pass on? It's fulfilling to be able to do stuff like this for kids that are appreciative."
Hernandez was born in the Dominican Republic, and his family moved to New York City when he was just 2 years old and didn't start playing organized baseball until age 12. He knows how valuable the game of baseball can be as a vehicle to success and even a way to cope with life, as his mother fell ill his junior year of high school and he put the game to the side to help out. His senior year, a high school in New Hampshire provided a scholarship and let him focus on the game. Eventually, Hernandez was drafted in the 1986 Amateur Draft and played with 10 clubs throughout his career, posting a 3.45 ERA over 1,010 games. In 1999 with Tampa, Hernandez tallied a then-record 43 saves, a record that stood until 2010.
"Baseball is an outlet," Hernandez, now residing in Treasure Island, said. "The one thing that I always had and what I always preach to kids is to dream. Follow your dream. Don't let anybody say 'no.' Don't let anybody tell you 'you can't do it.' If you want something, and you fully go after it, and you start seeing the results...continue.
"I had people that came my way that helped me positively, so it's now my turn to do the same thing."
One of the most energetic and boisterous former pros of the group, Seth McClung, worked with fellow former pitcher Grant Balfour on teaching the kids how to throw the right way -- without putting too much torque or stress on the arm or elbow. McClung, who serves as the head coach of Tarpon Springs High School, told the youngsters that working hard at something every day can't help but make you get better.
"The MLBPAA do a lot of (clinics), especially in this area, and I try to get to every single one I can," he said. "I really enjoy getting out here and connecting with the kids. It means a lot to give back, and sometimes these kids don't get the opportunity to do something like this, and to be able to provide it for free -- it's very prideful."
As a high school coach, McClung values what the game of baseball teaches youth beyond the sport itself, and it's something each of the alumni passed down to participants.
"I feel if you coach and present athletics in the right light, you can really help develop a child," McClung said. "You have accountability, you have wins and losses and how to deal with that -- it's real life."
Working with the kids on hitting fundamentals alongside Rich Thompson was 13-year veteran Dan Wheeler.
Wheeler, who also has become involved in coaching youth baseball, said getting to come out to a Major League facility to work with tomorrow's stars is something he hopes they'll take with them and remember.
"I was fortunate enough to go do things like this, but never on a Major League field," Wheeler said. "To interact with these kids and former Major Leaguers...if you pay attention, you might learn something. It's just a great experience."
Wheeler, in his chat with the group, said being versatile and picking up multiple positions can give you an advantage and keep yourself in the lineup. He preached being able to take constructive criticism, being coachable, and most importantly, having fun.
"The interactions we were having with the kids, it seemed like every one of them was having a good time," Wheeler said. "I love working with (the youth). It's what I do. I love coaching youth baseball. It's a pleasure of mine to watch them learn."
Additional alumni included outfielder Midre Cummings, relief pitcher Grant Balfour, pitcher Travis Phelps, infielder Aaron Ledesma, catcher Mike DiFelice and reliever AL Reyes.