Former Major League ballplayers came to Catonsville on a sultry August evening to hold a free baseball clinic that stressed fundamentals and fun, while giving kids from ages 6 to 16 a chance to make memories that will last a lifetime.
It was the third year for the Legends for Youth Clinic that was held at the Weltmer Bowl baseball field, located on the grounds of the Spring Grove State Hospital.
Catonsville resident Tim Tacka, the director of operations for the Baltimore Redbirds, hosted the event for approximately 150 kids on the field he has transformed into a hidden gem.
“My favorite part about this night is there are kids that have the opportunity to be able to come out, enjoy the game of baseball and they are learning from players who have played at the highest level in Major League Baseball,” Tacka said. “It’s a free camp and in today’s world where you have all the camps that are expensive, we are able to do it once a year.”
Katherine Sartain, the special events manager for Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association based in Colorado Springs, had a little trouble finding the field, but was impressed when she got there.
“It is incredible,” Sartain said. “It took me a couple of minutes to find it and I stumbled upon it and it was like the Garden of Eden. It’s so unique, it really makes it special.”
Tacka, a 1987 Cardinal Gibbons graduate who played baseball and soccer there, spends hours cutting the seven acres of grass and maintaining the field and is proud to feature it for the former Major Leaguers.
“The field as you looked at tonight was in pristine shape,” Tacka said. “It is a full-time job taking care of that field, but it’s a labor of love and I do it as a volunteer. My wife (Chris) is a saint who puts up with this and if you were to go to my house, my lawn is kept nicely, but does not look like the field and she reminds me of that every once and awhile.”
Tacka’s son, Jackson, who will be a senior at Gilman this fall, was at the camp and participated with players from the League of Dreams who were there for the first hour of the camp.
“There was one kid that I’ve had the opportunity to do a couple of League of Dreams events that he has been all the ones that I’ve been at so being able to reconnect with him and play catch with him a little bit and then to see him get to play in the game was really cool,” said Tacka, a left-handed pitcher who is committed to play baseball at the Naval Academy.
Frank Kolarek is the founder and president of League of Dreams that allows players to participate in baseball and softball regardless of their skill level or disability.
“Mike Bordick pitched for the whole League of Dreams for the first hour (5 to 6 p.m.),” Tim Tacka said.
Bordick is Chairman of the Board for League of Dreams.
From 6 to 9 p.m. kids learned at stations that included baserunning, hitting, pitching and fielding under the tutelage of former pros, including Brian Bass, Rick Krivda, Steve Lombardozzi, Bert Heffernan, Justin Maxwell, Dickie Noles and Fred Valentine.
Valentine, whose best season came with the Washington Senators in 1966 when he hit 16 home runs and led the team in doubles (29) and hits (140), is on the Board of the MLBPAA.
Lombardozzi batted .416 in the World Series when he played for the Minnesota Twins, during their championship season in 1987.
Noles was a relief pitcher for the 1980 champion Philadelphia Phillies.
Seeing the Major Leaguers certainly brought back memories for Jackson Tacka.
“I remember going to coach (John) Jankuska’s camp at UMBC when I was this age and being able to see them do all the same drills,” Tacka said. “I was thinking how cool it would be to have Major League players be able to teach you, free night on a field as great as this, is really cool.”
MLBPAA does 185 clinics a year, with most of them in the United States, but they also held clinics in Latin America, Italy and China.
Sartain was coordinating a clinic in Lakewood, N.J. the day before the Catonsville one and was headed to Philadelphia the next day.
“The goal is equal parts to promote the game of baseball using our positive sports images and to keep our alumni members involved in the game and involved in their communities, so by doing these clinics we kind of achieve both of those things,” Sartain said.
What is unique about the camp is that stopwatches, radar guns and various other measuring tools are not present.
“The thing we didn’t do this evening that is very important with all the stations that we did, nothing was a measurable aspect,” Tim Tacka said. “When you get to the higher level play, you have all the kids who get into their measurables.”
Raw natural hitters emerged during the hitting sessions and some diamonds in the rough flashed their speed and were praised with positive reviews from the former big leaguers.
“What we were able to do this evening was we were able to have a bunch of young kids out and just have fun and enjoy the game of baseball,” Tacka said. “Grab a bat and here comes a ball and hit it as hard as you can.”
All the kids received baseballs so they could get autographs, but one of Tacka’s favorite moments came late in the evening.
“I think the best part of the night was at the end, because not only did the Major League players teach them fundamentals of the game, but afterwards we had all the kids get together after the stations and each player from the Major Leagues spoke to them about a life lesson — baseball is the great game that teaches you life as well, because you are going to fail in the game of baseball, but it’s about continually trying and continuing the effort and to continue going forward.”
Sartain never get tired of going to new places to hold clinics and loves to see the reaction of the parents as well as the kids.
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“We couldn’t do what we do without the parents. They are the chauffeurs, they are the alarm clocks, the providers of equipment. The parents are so thankful. There is a lot of gratitude involved in this job and it’s very rewarding,” Sartain said. “I’ve been a baseball fan my entire life, so even if that wasn’t there, it would be hard for me to get bored, but the gratitude that we receive in the things that people show us is what makes it special.”