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Baseball: Camp talks baseball and life choices

By Mike London
mlondon@salisburypost.com
KANNAPOLIS ó Even Alex Rodriguez showed up for Bret Johnson’s latest summer baseball camp.
Rodriguez answers to A-Rod just like the wealthy big leaguer, but this version is 11 years old, looks even younger and will be a student at Northwest Cabarrus Middle School.
Middle school means peer pressure and tough choices. Johnson, a lieutenant in the Kannapolis Police Department, strives to increase the odds that students will opt for sports and books rather than violence and gangs.
Three years ago, Johnson figured out the ideal vehicle to reach lots of youngsters in a very short time.
A free baseball camp.
More specifically ó a free, four-day baseball camp with big-time instructors.
Major sponsors were needed for the project. Johnson lined up Wendy’s. Then he landed Sun Drop. Smaller businesses contributed $100, whatever they could spare.
Johnson needed a baseball field to make his dream work. His friend Joe Hubbard, Northwest Cabarrus High’s head coach, had a diamond available.
Area coaches got involved. People like A.L. Brown’s Empsy Thompson, Catawba’s Jim Gantt, South Rowan’s Thad Chrismon, Pfeiffer’s Mark Hayes and Mooresville’s Jeff Burchett.
Names like that get 11-year-olds excited. The first year of the camp, 50 youngsters signed up.
This year, Northwest played host to 165 campers.
Johnson hates to turn anyone anyway, but that’s the largest turnout that’s manageable. The youngest campers are 8. Many are middle schoolers.
“No bones about it, we use sports to talk to kids about life choices,” Johnson said. “If I stand in front of these kids as a police officer they expect me to talk about certain things, but if a high school coach talks about making smart choices it really gets their attention. If Joe Hubbard tells these kids he can’t use them if they’re in a gang, it means something. That’s the catch of this camp.”
In some respects, it’s a basic baseball camp, albeit a well-attended one. Kids get a crash course in running bases, pickoff moves, taking leads, sliding, bunting ó all the fundamentals.
In some respects, it’s not ordinary. Each instruction station features not only a coach but a police officer, usually a resource officer from one of the area schools.
“It shows kids police officers are not bad guys,” Hubbard said. “How can he be a bad guy if he’s out here cutting up with them?”
Gantt said the biggest plus is some youngsters get a chance to be part of a team for the first time.
“These police officers are really trying to get to these kids early, and that’s a good thing,” Gantt said. “The kids out here get a chance to join in something that’s bigger than themselves. It’s also a place parents can drop their children off for several hours and know they’re in good hands.”
Celebrity speakers, who offer their personal stories without being preachy, are an integral part of the camp.
Former big-leaguer Tony Womack showed campers his bunting skills and the World Series ring he earned as Arizona’s shortstop in the 2001 World Series.
Racer Randy LaJoie displayed a Busch Series championship trophy.
Kannapolis dentist Mike Morton showed up with jerseys from the five NFL teams he played for as well as the Super Bowl ring he earned as a St. Louis Ram.
None of those champions was a sure thing growing up.
When Womack was playing college ball for Division III Guilford, few envisioned him getting a key World Series hit off New York Yankees closer Mariano Rivera.
Morton wasn’t the best athlete in his class growing up, just the one that studied the hardest in school and worked the hardest in the offseason.
When Lajoie’s best 1990 finish was 23rd, no one predicted he’d take Busch titles back-to-back in 1996-97.
So they all had hard-work-leads-to-success lessons to pass on to wide-eyed kids.
To the campers, the biggest star of all was Kyle Seager, a former Northwest player who has played three seasons for UNC, made all-tournament at the recent College World Series and was a third-round pick in the MLB draft.
“Kyle stood around watching the camp for about 20 minutes before they figured out who he was,” Hubbard said. “Next thing you know there’s a line forming, and Kyle autographed everything. We had to blow the airhorns to get the campers back to their stations.”
Johnson said his camp filled up in three weeks after signups started this year. Most campers are from Cabarrus and Rowan, but some traveled from Mecklenburg and Union counties.
“I’d like to see even more kids from our backyard out here that are missing out,” Thompson said. “This is a great opportunity for kids to be exposed to all of this. Especially when they can be exposed to it for free.”

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