Benefield: Santa Rosa baseball clinic benefits kids who lost homes to fires

On Friday, about 220 young baseball enthusiasts - a good many of whom lost their homes in the deadly wildfires in October - will get a chance to learn skills under the tutelage of baseball veterans.|

At this point, it’s probably not about the gear. At this point, three months on, it’s probably about fielding a grounder and hanging out with buddies. Having the Oakland A’s shortstop there to give tips is probably not a bad draw, either.

On Friday, about 220 young baseball enthusiasts - a good many of whom lost their homes in the deadly wildfires in October - will get a chance to learn skills under the tutelage of baseball veterans, including some big leaguers, minor leaguers and area standouts. It’s part of a four-hour clinic and fundraiser at Epicenter in Santa Rosa to benefit youth baseball players who have lost their homes.

“It’s anything to get them back on their feet, playing baseball and having fun,” said Kevin Wood, president of Mark West Little League.

There were 435 athletes who played Mark West Little League last year; 110 of them lost their homes in the wildfires, according to Wood. Seven board members and about a dozen coaches also lost homes. In Rincon Valley Little League, about 50 players lost homes, but the league itself lost three massive containers of equipment, Wood said. Players in other area leagues have lost homes and gear, too.

There have been equipment drives and donations, rallies in which players were gifted gloves and other gear, and on Friday there will be giveaways, too.

But the key, organizers said, is to get kids out playing.

Kids who were burned out of their homes can attend the camp free of charge. All others will pay $75 and all money generated from admission and the auctions after the clinic will go back to players who have been displaced, said Kasey Olenberger, an organizer of Friday’s event.

But there is less of a focus on fundraising and more on fun, he said.

“It’s four hours they can get out there and have fun,” he said. “A lot of these kids, their season was cut short. They didn’t have that outlet to go out on the field.”

On Friday, they will get that chance.

Epicenter donated time on all three of its soccer fields as well as the basketball court so that as many as 50 volunteer coaches can run 220 athletes through the paces.

On tap to coach are A’s shortstop Marcus Semien, former Giants pitcher and Santa Rosa resident Noah Lowry, Philadelphia Phillies catcher Andrew Knapp, Royals pitcher and Cardinal Newman grad Scott Alexander and Maria Carrillo grad and Cal’s Pac-12 Freshman of the Year, Andrew Vaughn.

“Kids will be hanging out with players, asking questions of guys who are in the grind or have been through the grind,” Olenberger said.

And participants might even get a sweat going.

“Everything is going to be some sort of competition,” he said. Kudos to the winners, push-ups for everyone else.

Olenberger, a Piner High grad who went on to play at Santa Rosa Junior College, Long Beach State and during 10 years of professional baseball, said that since the fires he has been in regular contact with bosses of the various baseball leagues in Sonoma County, figuring out how to get kids what they need to get out and start playing again.

There have already been donation drives and giveaways galore, but this is the first time, according to Wood, that such a large group of kids from various leagues - and some not affiliated with organized baseball at all - are getting together to just play.

“I don’t care if a kid never plays Little League baseball ever. If he can have a glove on his hand and a smile and have fun?” Wood said.

“Sports, it just creates that outlet. A lot of these kids are still struggling,” Olenberger said.

Olenberger, who runs clinics for coaches and players through Fastball Strike 1, said he has long relationships built up with league leaders - so when the fires hit, putting something together to draw kids from an array of organizations made sense.

“A lot of people were saying there were a lot of fundraisers to get equipment for these kids, so when we were sitting around the house kind of talking, it was ‘What’s the goal?’” he said.

Turns out, just getting kids playing again is a pretty good goal.

“It’s so many kids from so many different leagues,” he said. “It’s literally, ‘Hey, we are playing ball and having fun, man. It’s camaraderie.”

Organizers applied for funding from the North Bay Fire Relief fund managed by Redwood Credit Union. With those funds, campers who have been affected by the fires will leave with goodie bags and gift cards, Olenberger said.

The idea is to help kids feel whole, he said. Baseball is one piece of that effort.

“I think Friday is about getting out and having fun,” Wood said. “Baseball season is around the corner.”

You can reach staff columnist Kerry Benefield at 707- 526-8671 or, on Twitter @benefield and on Instagram at kerry.benefield.

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