By SCOTT W. COLEMAN
Four Points News
Football may have risen to prominence across much of America in recent years, but many will still argue that baseball is ‘America’s Game’ and has been all along.
Attracting young people of all ages and more than just a few interested adults, a group of current and former Major League Baseball players took time to share their experiences and answer questions on Feb. 11 at Vandegrift’s Venom Field, as a part of a fundraising Home Run Derby hosted by the VHS baseball boosters.
“With all the talent we have in our community, this was a chance for them to give back to the community,” said organizer Amy Mader. “They all live here. It’s amazing how much talent we have in this area. And their kids feed into the Vandegrift schools, so it’s really their own back yard.”
Among those players who met with baseball fans young and old were three-time World Series winning pitcher John Lackey, currently with the Chicago Cubs, Colorado Rockies pitcher Chad Qualls, retired pitcher Kelly Wunsch, a veteran of the Chicago White Sox and Houston Astros, and Pflugerville High School graduate Dominic Ramos, who most recently played with the Sugar Land Skeeters near Houston.
Mader said the idea started as a way to have a fundraiser that would attract a large number of people outside the usual sports booster club supporters.
“I think whenever you do an event, you have to do something that appeals to the masses,” Mader said. “There are things that happen around here that already have their niche, so (we thought) how can we do something that is different and unique, and something where we’re going to get 60 teenagers who are going to want to come out and participate. And it was great for them… it was a chance for them to come and spend the day on the baseball field.”
The event opened with a panel of the four players talking about their experiences, sharing insights and knowledge, and answering questions from the audience.
A number of the younger baseball fans wanted were interested in stories about the day-to-day life of the players during the season, while several teenaged players — including current VHS varsity and junior varsity players — had more specific questions about physical preparation or coaching situations.
Wunsch, a longtime Four Points area resident and former Texas A&M pitcher, took the lead in handling questions and prompting dialogue among the players and audience.
“Great coaches expect big things of you,” Wunsch said. “They prepare you to compete and help prepare you for handling adversity.”
Lackey, who was a part of last year’s Chicago Cubs World Series win, described Cubs Manager Joe Maddon as being a really good coach for the younger professional players coming into the league. “(He’s) really laid back and expects you to handle your business.”
Wunsch described how different coaches at different levels of the sport provide different types of teaching to players as they develop, saying that coaches are usually more detail oriented at the lower levels but by the time an athlete reaches the professional level, those around expect that person to be a professional and act professionally.
“You worked hard to get here, so you need a coach that will let the guys play and do their jobs,” said Wunsch.
Qualls talked about the importance of having coaches who create mental toughness. “When your back’s against the wall, you’re going to fight back and get out of those innings.”
Much of the advice given by the professional players revolved around work ethic, with each describing how early players arrive on game day, hit the gym and warm up to prepare both physically and mentally for each game.
All four professionals agreed that the superstar players are most reliably the first players to arrive for workouts on game day, saying that the most successful players are consistently among the hardest working athletes.
After the panel finished answering questions, each took time to talk individually with fans, signing autographs and posing for photos. A silent auction including signed memorabilia donated by the area’s professional players added to the fundraising efforts.
All four current and former professional players stood at the rail and watched as young people lined up to take turns in the batter’s box to hit in a fun ‘home run derby’ event, still giving their time to answer questions and promote the spirit that has made baseball remain solidly in place as ‘America’s Game.’