When playing baseball, whether for the first time or later in life, young individuals are taught the basics of the game: how to swing a bat, catch a fly ball, and run the bases. The same goes for historic Tom Varn Park in downtown Brooksville, which has been a staple of our community’s athletics, recreational or competitive at the interscholastic level. And on a crisp Sunday afternoon, the park would write another chapter in its legacy. Led by eight former Major League Baseball players, the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association offered some great lessons to roughly 100 local youth players in the Tampa Bay area. Of the eight legends that participated, nearly half have some form of ties to the area, whether it be local products of Hernando County itself or former greats who spent parts of their careers in Florida-based organizations.
Each station, which spanned roughly 15 minutes to give everyone who participated at least one trip around, had a legend demonstrating lessons they learned while they performed at the highest level of competition, not only offering up advice but also listening to the youth players as they talked about what they’ve experienced so far playing America’s pastime. “It’s a great experience for these young kids to get lessons from these legends of the game,” deputy mayor of Brooksville Butch Battista said. “We’ve done this event before and the turnouts have been well-received, so it’s great not only for the city, but for these kids. They’re the future, and the lessons they learn today will only benefit them in the future.”
During the pitching session, former Rays relief pitcher Grant Balfour taught the kids how to finger certain pitches, most notably the four-seam fastball. “The pitcher has control of the game, because he’s the one with the ball all the time,” Balfour said. “There’s all kinds of pitchers; strong pitchers, quick save pitchers, submarine release pitchers, but the most important thing is this: how can I get strikes called?” In the infield training session, former Padres pitcher Brian Tollberg taught the youth what he called the “Six F’s” of fielding: footwork, fielding, funneling, 2nd footwork, fire, and follow-through. “I used to play the infield before I focused on pitching, and this was my method to be efficient,” said Tollberg. “The youth today, they really enjoy these events and we as former players enjoy our time with them.”
Out in center field, former Cardinals and Diamondbacks pitcher John Frascatore demonstrated to the kids how to properly field a fly ball. Prior to throwing in each session, Frascatore offered two lessons: first to “run with the balls of your feet because running flat-footed will make the ball bounce, which leads to a greater chance of committing an error” and “always use two hands when you’re catching the ball.” Frascatore, who has history in the area coaching Nature Coast’s baseball team for years, felt nostalgic on the field the event was held on, because it was the same field where his daughter Kaylee perfected her craft. “I used to come here and watch her play and she was amazing. So, to see this next young group of kids soak up the information we’re giving them, that means something to us.”
In right field, former Reds pitcher Bronson Arroyo, who grew up not too far from the park and graduated from Hernando High School just down the road, worked with kids in the throwing drill, during which the kids would line up almost like warm-up throws when they first arrive at the field for a game and just throw. Arroyo, who had a good 20-year career in MLB, taught the youth, “Balance is key. You want to throw the ball in a straight line, from point A to point B, step towards your target, and always be behind the throw.” Arroyo, like Frascatore, reminisced during his time in the event: “I’m a local product, so by participating in an event like this today, it has extra meaning to me, being able to help mold the youth in my hometown with lessons I’ve had growing up. The MLBPAA is incredible, and I’m honored to be here.”
Over in the batting cages, former MLB journeyman Randy Ruiz helped kids understand how to properly square up and bunt while also showing them how to swing for the fences. Ruiz also used a quote from a previously forgotten baseball-themed movie when talking about footwork: “Your balance is the ultimate key to success when swinging. If you can get your feet set right, then you can hit anything within reach.” In the baserunning section, former Cardinals pitcher Kevin Ohme, who owns a rare distinction of having a perfect 1.000 batting average, demonstrated proper techniques when running the base paths: “You must always finish running through the bag. On bang-bang plays, try and avoid touching the front of the bag, because sometimes umpires can’t see you touch it, and a play that would be safe instead is called out. Also, when running through the bag, make sure to look to the right of the bag in case the ball is loose.” Ohme also offered the youth this lesson about running: “You can have a bad day hitting the ball, fielding the ball, throwing the ball, or a combination of these. What you can never have a bad day doing is running.” In the catching session, former Mets and Cubs catcher Alfred “Butch” Benton initially confused the players with his first quote: “We don’t catch the ball, we receive the ball.”
After this, he would demonstrate what he meant by showing the campers that a smooth pull of the ball after catching it in the glove is called “receiving the ball. Coming in fast is catching.” At the end of the event, prior to each kid receiving a signed baseball by the legends, every player received a great life lesson from Benton: “Are you willing to do what it takes to succeed?” The answer was a resounding yes, and that was music to the legend’s ears. For former Cubs pitcher Mike Walker, who grew up in Brooksville, said being able to come back to the park he used to play at was incredible. “It’s an awesome thing to come back home and give the next young group of athletes’ lessons from when we played. The MLBPAA does a fantastic job with hosting, and we as former athletes are honored to come out and give these kids a fun time. Some of these kids won’t commit to baseball, which is great. But to have this experience, which most of us didn’t have when we were their age, is special, and I hope everyone who participated had as much fun as we legends did.”