Orioles take time out of busy day for youth baseball and softball clinic

It was pushing 90 degrees and the second game of a big series against the New York Yankees was just a few hours away, but an important chunk of the Orioles roster was sweating in the noonday sun on a humble ballfield at Radecke Park.

Adam Jones and Manny Machado put a hundred or so kids through a double play drill on one of the infields. Former Orioles Al Bumbry and Bill Swaggerty worked with another group nearby. Shortstop J.J. Hardy and fiance Adrienne Acton were across the street with Jones' girlfriend Audie Fugett giving hitting tips to a large group of teenage softball players.

The popular youth clinic in the Gardenville neighborhood is a cornerstone of the Orioles' commitment to Major League Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, which provides funding to build urban ballfields and support youth leagues. This year's event was special because it is the first since the team officially brought girls softball under the RBI umbrella.

In all, the Orioles now sponsor 25 youth teams, providing equipment and umpiring fees and paying to send all-star teams from each age group to the RBI East Regional tournament every year. That financial commitment has been augmented by Jones and some of his teammates, who put a very human face on the effort to encourage city kids to play baseball and stay in school.

"It's part of my responsibility,'' Jones said. "I've been mainly the only African-American [player] here for a while and, you know, looking at the stadium the last six years, I've started to see more black families coming to the games. It's cool to see, because I would love to see my people here a lot more.

"I've done this camp for six years now ... it's cool to see these kids growing up and it's like, I've been around for them, helping them out with baseball and talking to them about life. Why stop now? Those kids deserve it, and I've made a commitment to them."

The team has a catchy label for its many efforts to bond with the community — "Orioles Reach" — and the attempt to expand that reach was clearly on display Saturday. The Orioles joined with Coppin State's softball team to create an instructional program for the girls that mirrored the larger baseball clinic.

Coppin State softball coach Larry Hineline offered pitching instruction that these girls probably aren't going to get anywhere else. Acton and Hardy represented the ultimate baseball-softball power couple, with J.J. one of the best shortstops in the major leagues and Acton a two-time national champion in softball from the University of Arizona. Both worked with the girls on hitting and then engaged them in a casual Q&A session.

"The girls want to play, too,'' said Fugett, who played college basketball at George Washington University. "You don't have a professional softball league to look up to. They obviously look up to the guys, too, in the major leagues. Even though there's not really major league softball to be striving to, I think it's important to talk to the girls about college. And even if they don't play in college, it's a chance for me to tell them how important I think it is that they continue on to college and, if possible, use softball to further their education."

Obviously, the afternoon was a big hit with the parents who brought their kids to the park for some real instruction as well as the opportunity to meet some of their sports heroes and to enjoy lunch on the Orioles.

"I think this is real nice,'' said Kukena Hawkins of Baltimore, who was watching her son take ground balls from Machado. "They do this every year, and I think it's a good opportunity to give back to the community. "

Jones likes to quote Charles Barkley and claim that he's not a role model, but he obviously takes the opportunity to interact with kids more seriously than he lets on when he's trading barbs with them and challenging them on the field.

"I like motivating people, especially in my community, to be better and to do better, whoever it is, but it all starts with the kids,'' Jones said. "That's the basis of everything. They're the future. I try to help them out and let them know there are way different outlets. Not just sports. There are careers out there that are attainable. Get your education and set yourself up to live your life."

The Orioles had two hours to get that message across and then it was back to Camden Yards to prepare for another game against their most storied rival.

All in a day's work.

Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.

 

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