Red Sox prospect holds free clinic in Newtown
Connecticut native Barnes hosts 200-plus children near site of tragic event
NEWTOWN, Conn. -- It wasn't exactly baseball weather, but it was close enough for Connecticut.
Boston prospect Matt Barnes, a native of nearby Bethel, brought a contingent of players and coaches to the Newtown Youth Academy for a free instructional clinic on Sunday. Barnes, a first-round selection in the 2011 First-Year Player Draft, said it meant a lot to him to make a mark in his home state.
"It's awesome," Barnes said. "Anytime you can come home in the offseason and give back to the community you grew up in, I think it's something special. We had a bunch of good guys here who are helping us out. We're trying to get these kids better and to give them a fun Sunday."
That last part was never in doubt. Barnes -- and a group that included Oakland reliever Evan Scribner and rising prospects George Springer and Mike Olt -- welcomed more than 200 children from ages 7 to 15 at the Newtown Youth Academy's sprawling indoor facility.
Barnes, who grew up within 8 miles of Newtown, could hardly get closer to home in his first foray at hosting an instructional clinic. And he would've had a hard time choosing a more worthy place than Newtown, a community still healing from a horrific school-shooting incident last December.
Barnes, the No. 5 prospect in Boston's organization, said he came up with the idea for the clinic and that his agents helped make it happen. They also got an assist from USA Baseball, which provided several tutors willing to work with the Newtown children.
"It's nice to finally see the finished product," said Barnes, who also arranged several gifts for the students. "You put in a couple months planning and trying to get everything together. When you see all the kids come in, have a good time and walk out of here happy, that's the most important thing."
Barnes reached Triple-A last season, and Springer, his teammate at UConn and on Team USA, served notice that he's one of the most intriguing players in the Minor Leagues. Springer, Houston's No. 3 prospect, split the year between Double-A and Triple-A and batted .303 with 37 home runs.
And perhaps most importantly, Springer could tell the children about his gradual transformation. A fleet-footed outfielder, Springer was scouted early by UConn and wasn't really considered a prospect. But he kept playing and growing, and he worked his way into becoming a first-round pick in 2011.
"It's great to give back to the community. When Matt called me and said this was going to happen, I was excited about it," Springer said. "I was actually just talking to my dad, and I was just saying how great it would've been. I grew up in New Britain, and [Torii] Hunter and [David] Ortiz [were playing there]. It would've been great to do stuff like that with them, but for all these kids, it's all about the kids now."
Scribner, who has made 48 appearances for the A's over the past two seasons, echoed a similar sentiment, and he said he would've loved a chance to meet a big leaguer when he was a kid. Scribner said that in his hometown, it was even hard to find players that had gone on to play in college.
Scribner, a 28th-round draftee in 2007, played his college ball at Central Connecticut State, and he is one of just three players from that school to ever reach the Majors. And in this setting, among fellow small-town Connecticut natives, Scribner loves the opportunity to be a role model.
"My brothers and my dad also do baseball lessons, so I get to see all the local kids," said Scribner, whose hometown of Washington, Conn., has less than 4,000 residents. "By getting to see them play -- and them getting to see me -- I think it helps them stay motivated and have the drive to keep going and keep practicing. Coming from a small town, they're in the same situation. They see the success that we have, and I think it helps them. It's good to come back for the offseason and help the kids out."
Duke Dickerson, who operates the nearby Connecticut Titans of the Collegiate Baseball League, helped Barnes put together a roster of skilled coaches and players for Sunday's clinic. Pat Horvath, coach at Philadelphia University, brought several members of his team to lend a hand.
Barnes and Springer -- two first-round picks in recent years -- found themselves relaying baseball anecdotes to hungry minds Sunday, and they wanted to know a few simple things. In short, the children wanted to know what they can do to get better and what it's like to play professionally.
"The first couple years have been awesome," Barnes said. "Your first year, you get in there and the season kind of takes a toll on you as it gets to the end. It gets long. It gets tedious. That's something you take into the offseason and use to work harder and get your body in better shape and get more mentally ready to take on a new season. ... I think the first two years were a lot of fun."
Nearly a year has passed since the tragic shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School, and Newtown has looked inward as it tries to heal an impossible wound. The fire department has erected 26 stars on its firehouse roof -- one for each victim -- and a touching plaque dedicated to the lives that were lost.
All over town, there's a ubiquitous bumper sticker that speaks to the attitude the citizens have taken.
"We are Sandy Hook," it reads. "We choose love."
That love has been returned to the community in numerous forms, and the clinic on Sunday was just another reminder that the country will never forget Newtown. But on this day, this was just any other town in Connecticut where the kids love baseball enough to play in frigid conditions.
Scribner, who was drafted by Arizona and now plays in Oakland, chuckled when asked about the weather. It's too cold for him now, but he can recall growing up and playing in it anyway. And as he looked around the gym, he couldn't help but feel certain that many of these children feel the same way.
"The kids make it for me. They love the game so much," he said. "I think growing up and getting older, the guys I used to play with aren't lucky enough to keep playing professionally. They kind of lose the love of the game. But these kids, they all have it. And I hope they never lose it. We'll see."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.