It was supposed to be a practice like any other when the Immokalee High School baseball team arrived at their equipment sheds for a 6 a.m. practice on Monday morning. They were one day away from their season opener, looking to take full advantage of the holiday with a productive morning session.
Instead, they were devastated to find that their sheds showed signs of forced entry and eight of their bats had been stolen, including several team bats and others customized and purchased by individual players and their families, with head coach Natrone Means estimating that more than $2,000 of equipment had gone missing.
The Immokalee community has since rallied to support its students, and on Saturday, the Twins took things one step further by inviting the high school team to the Lee County Sports Complex for a day of private workouts with the Major League coaching staff and player development personnel, finally giving some of those students a reason to smile amid their difficult week.
"This is the happiest I've seen the crew in a while," said outfielder Cameron Coe, who had two bats stolen, according to reports. "It's really touching all of us."
Means and his students essentially became big leaguers for a day, starting with an address to the team from Twins manager Rocco Baldelli, who had heard about the theft in the news and initiated the process with club communications director Dustin Morse to reach out to Means on Thursday to see what the Twins could do to help.
Means first wondered about the possibility of getting his students to a game, considering only 34 miles separate Immokalee and Fort Myers, Fla. But with the lockout keeping Baldelli's staff from working with big leaguers, Morse had another suggestion: "What if we can get you guys in for a practice with our staff?"
"I was like, 'Man, that would beat any game. That would beat anything you could do,'" Means said. "That's something guys dream of, to work with a Major League coaching staff. They work with the best of the best. You get to be considered the best of the best for one day. Even though it's one day, this is something you can take with you for a lifetime."
The players went through stretching drills with the strength and conditioning staff, did some warmups, broke out into infield, outfield and catching drills with position coaches and even got to analyze their swings in the Twins' batting cages. In all, it was quite similar to a day of programming that the big leaguers themselves would go through in a normal spring workout on the back fields.
The Immokalee team wrapped up the day with an invitation to stick around at Hammond Stadium with tickets to watch the University of Minnesota take on Indiana State in the Golden Gophers' penultimate game before heading back north to the Twin Cities.
"The whole group of outfield coaches for the Twins has been very complimentary of a few of our guys, and even in the infield," Means said. "Some guys are with [pitching coach Wes Johnson] asking questions about pitching, talking to the strength and conditioning coaches for guys that are dealing with shoulder issues and throwing pains. They've given me great advice -- great tips that I can use in practice and out of practice."
"Our staff is here just preparing for and getting ready for our Major League players, so this gave us something really productive to do, and something that the Immokalee group will probably remember for a long time, but also something we're going to remember, too," Baldelli said.
There hasn't been much progress in finding out what happened to the bats, which still leaves Coe and his teammates overwhelmed and worried, more by the mental impact of having such a violation occur to them than the financial losses -- though those are also considerable.
"You know, their parents went out and worked hard for those bats," Means said. "That's the part that really discourages me. The team bats discourage me as well, but the ones that lost their personal bats, those are the ones that touch me because these parents, it's not like they come from bundles of money. They work really hard to buy these expensive bats."
But if the big smiles and the raucous laughter floating out of the batting cages offered any indication, the players were finally able to put those thoughts aside for a once-in-a-lifetime day, and that's a gift that Means and his group won't soon forget.
"The Twins as an organization took it upon themselves to reach out and take part in the Southwest Florida area," Means said. "They didn't have to do that. They didn't have to reach out. They didn't have to do any of the things they're doing for us right now. They didn't have to open their facility for us. For them to allow us to come in and feel like we're home ... it's just great."