COOPERSTOWN, N.Y. -- A rainy day in Cooperstown may have kept the approximately 100 participants from taking the diamond at Doubleday Field for the Legends for Youth Skills Clinic, but it didn't stop them from spending an unforgettable day with some former big leaguers.
Although soggy field conditions prevented the children, aged 7-12, from honing their physical skills on the actual Hall of Fame field, they spent an hour learning some of the intricacies of the game and hearing stories from a group of past Major Leaguers that included Cardinals 2006 World Series MVP David Eckstein. Following the clinic, each of the participants received autographs from the panel of former players, which along with Eckstein included Mark Kotsay, Aaron Rowand, Marlon Anderson, Steve Grilli, Brian Fisher, Dave Criscione and Joel Bennett.
"The biggest thing is that you should always do your best, no matter what," Eckstein said of the message he hoped to relay to the youngsters. "The game of baseball, if you're fortunate enough to play it, that's great -- but if you just make the right decisions and do your best, that's all you can do, whether it's the game of baseball or the game of life."
For Eckstein, who was also a member of the 2002 World Series champion Angels, the visit to Cooperstown evoked memories from his only other visit to the Hall of Fame -- one that came when he was just 5 years old.
A native of Sanford, Fla., Eckstein and his father, Herbert "Whitey" Eckstein, once took a road trip north to see Eckstein's favorite childhood team, the New York Yankees. Once in New York, they decided to also swing by Cooperstown, where Eckstein remembers taking some swings in the batting cages adjacent to the Hall of Fame Museum.
He never could have imagined that, 35 years later, that same museum would now house the cleats and hat he wore during his run to earning a World Series MVP trophy.
"It's a bit surreal, sure," Eckstein said before the skills clinic. "I actually haven't seen them in person yet, but my dad came by a couple years ago and sent me a picture of them, so that was pretty cool. I'm hoping to see them later tonight, but right now, I'm just having fun with this clinic and interacting with all the kids that came out here today."
For Eckstein, he knows just how much this type of experience can mean to an aspiring young baseball player. He still remembers when seven-time All-Star -- and fellow Sanford native -- Tim Raines returned to his hometown to hold his own youth baseball clinic.
"Where I'm from, Tim Raines was our local guy, and he had the ability to come back and run a clinic that I was fortunate enough to be a part of at one point in time," Eckstein said. "That's something that's still very special to me. It would have been mind-boggling to have all my favorite players out here running that type of thing when I visited the Hall that one day."
The only setback to Friday's clinic was the off-and-on rain throughout the morning and early afternoon that left the field unplayable. Instead of leading drill stations on the field, the former players were left to pass on their advice through words rather than by example.
Rowand explained the most important parts of hitting. Kotsay led a discussion about patrolling the outfield. Anderson detailed the importance of baserunning. Grilli covered bunting, while Price took the pitching portion, Bennett talked about positive attitude and Criscione fielded teamwork. Eckstein, of course, preached about fundamentals and playing with heart.
"It's great to give back," said Kotsay, who played 17 seasons in the Majors before retiring this past offseason. "Unfortunately, the rain kept us off the field and from really doing some instructional stuff, but we still had a great group of kids that really paid attention and listened to some of the important things that we talked about. Most of all, they got to enjoy their time here, get some autographs and have fun."
Following Friday's clinic, a number of the former big leaguers will stick around to take part in Saturday's Hall of Fame Classic. The Classic includes one player representing each of the 30 Major League teams, who together have earned two MVP Awards, three Cy Young Awards, three World Series MVPs, more than 60 All-Star Game selections and 18 Gold Glove Awards.
Hall of Fame members Roberto Alomar, Andre Dawson, Rollie Fingers, Eddie Murray, Phil Niekro and Ozzie Smith will serve as managers and coaches for the game.
"It's just an incredible experience," Eckstein said. "Just to be at the Hall of Fame and see all of this history gives you a special feeling, but to know you're also giving back at the same time and possibly making a difference in even just one child's life, or career for that matter, only adds to it.
"I'm just thankful to be a part of it all."This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.