WASHINGTON -- Nationals third-base coach Bob Henley was jealous of catchers when he was a 12-year-old. He wanted to be involved in every play, but as a shortstop he often waited for the ball to come towards him.So, his dad drove him about 10 miles from their home in Mobile,
WASHINGTON -- Nationals third-base coach Bob Henley was jealous of catchers when he was a 12-year-old. He wanted to be involved in every play, but as a shortstop he often waited for the ball to come towards him.
So, his dad drove him about 10 miles from their home in Mobile, Ala., to a University of South Alabama baseball clinic, where Henley learned the fundamentals of playing catcher. He continued to develop those skills, and became a Major League backstop.
On Saturday morning, Henley and other Nationals coaches gave back to children during the Nationals/Inova Youth Baseball Clinic at Nationals Park by instructing them through drills. The event was part of the Play Ball initiative between Major League Baseball, USA Baseball and USA Softball, which encourages widespread participation in all forms of baseball/softball activities among all age groups.
"If [my coach] was having a good time and playful and joking and was loud and amusing, then I learned more from those coaches," Henley said of why he was energetic with the children Saturday. "They made an impression on me and they were fascinating and interesting and they had fun. It's impactful for the kids, the community and their families to bring them into our family -- the Nationals family -- for a few hours a day a couple of times during the season."
About 60 kids from the D.C. area between the ages of eight and 14 gathered on the field at 9 a.m. ET to stretch before rotating between stations, all of which were manned by at least one Nationals coach. The activities included throwing in the bullpen, scooping ground balls, catching fly balls, sprinting around the bases and stretching. The Nationals' coaches kept the atmosphere light by joking with and encouraging the children.
The Nationals began hosting clinics when the team moved to Washington in 2005. The club hoped to increase the popularity of baseball in the area after the Washington Senators left the city in 1971. They usually hold three clinics per year, and Shawn Bertani, the Nationals' player & community relations executive director, said they often attract about 150 participants each.
Bertani is happy with the way the sport has grown. The team began the Nationals Youth Baseball Uniform Program in 2015, giving a Nationals T-shirt or jersey and cap to every child playing baseball or softball in a D.C.-sanctioned Little League or the District of Columbia Parks and Recreation Rookie League, and many of the youngsters wore that clothing Saturday.
Also as part of the Nationals' Play Ball weekend, the squad is collecting baseball equipment via donations and hosting a parade along the warning track for kids ages 12 and under before the Nationals' game against the Reds on Sunday afternoon.
"The experience of being on the field at Nationals Park is such a unique thing," Bertani said. "The kids don't get access to our coaches, these guys are professional, and getting tips from them is phenomenal. The kids and the parents really enjoy it."
After the two-hour event, kids lined up to receive autographs from Blake Treinen. One child waited until all the others left, just to ask Treinen how he developed a strong arm. The 28-year-old said he was blessed with talent and worked hard, just like his mentee can do.
Treinen, like Henley, knows how much it means to children when he makes time for them.
"It really hits home because when I was a kid I wish I would've been able to do something like this, to go out and see a big league player," Treinen said. "Just signing an autograph for a kid to put a smile on their face, or taking the time to just talk to them, it goes a long way."
Kyle Melnick is a reporter for MLB.com based in Washington.