Legends On Deck

The Johnny Damon Baseball Summer Camp Expands the Game in Central Florida

The Florida Rising Stars Foundation exists to bring world-class sports experiences to young athletes in under-served communities.  Through their Ambassador program, the foundation connects sports celebrities with local opportunities to provide instruction of their sport.  Jan Richard, the Founder and President, was proud to tell me the foundation has 65 ambassadors.  Their first two ambassadors were legendary football coaches Bobby Bowden (Florida State) and Steve Spurrier (Florida).

Another one of those ambassadors is former MLB star Johnny Damon.  The Johnny Damon Baseball Summer Camp was a partnership between the Florida Rising Stars Foundation, the Johnny Damon Foundation, and the Winter Garden Squeeze of the Florida Summer Collegiate League.

The Local Champ

Babe Ruth, Roger Clemens, Wade Boggs and Johnny Damon.  All four of these men would play on both sides of the game’s biggest rivalry, Red Sox and Yankees.  Only Babe Ruth and Johnny Damon would win it all in both cities.  Johnny Damon was a crucial piece of both the 2004 Boston Red Sox and 2009 New York Yankees.

The Kansas City Royals selected Johnny Damon in the first round of the 1992 Draft (35th overall).  He’s an Orlando area native and product of Dr. Phillips High School.  Damon would play with the Royals from 1995-2000.  In 2000, he would lead the AL with 46 stolen bases.  He also posted a .327 batting average that season.

Damon played 18 seasons in Major League Baseball with the Royals, Athletics, Red Sox, Yankees, Tigers, Rays and Indians.  His career stats include 235 home runs, 1139 RBIs, 408 stolen bases and he’s a lifetime .284 hitter.  As the lead off hitter for two World Series Champions, he would become one of the most recognizable players in the game in the early 2000s.

Johnny Damon talking with the boys between drills.

Squeeze Ball

The Florida Collegiate Summer League is a college wood bat league that spans across the greater Orlando area.  The league has franchises in Deland, Leesburg, Sanford (River Rats and Snappers), Winter Park and Winter Garden.  The Winter Garden Squeeze play their home games at West Orange High School.

The Squeeze began play in the FCSL back in 2014.   The Squeeze roster includes players who are primarily from the state of Florida and/or attend colleges in Florida (with some exceptions).   School representation is wide-ranging, including everything from JUCO, to D2 schools like Rollins, to D1 programs like South Florida (USF).

The Squeeze front office personnel were heavily involved in the camp. General Manager Adam Bates on the organizational and logistics side.  Assistant GM, Jake Fisher, who played college ball at Oklahoma, was one of the primary instructors of the camp.

Squeeze Assistant GM Jake Fisher and Brayden Broome (Samford) showing a camper the proper throwing technique.

Part of the camp included an evening at the Winter Garden Squeeze game with Johnny Damon throwing out the first pitch.  Unfortunately, Florida summer weather (thunderstorms) disrupted those plans.  I’ll be writing more on the Winter Garden Squeeze as an organization very soon.

The Camp Experience

Kids who attended the camp came from a variety of ages, ability levels and backgrounds.  Many of the campers were experienced baseball players.  Others were brought to the camp through the Florida Rising Stars program.  The Rising Stars campers had little experience in the game of baseball and came from underprivileged backgrounds.  It was very cool to see all these kids working together and encouraging each other.  Coaches tapered instruction based on experience and skill level.  Every kid there was given the support and encouragement they needed.  And all the kids all had fun doing it.

The camp was broken up into two sessions; morning and afternoon.  They began activities as a whole group.  Starting with proper stretching and warm up techniques.  From there they broke up into small groups working on the fundamentals.  They focused on throwing and catching, as well as ground ball and infield drills.   Then fly-balls and outfield drills.  Base running and hitting was also part of the instruction.  Campers worked on a full range of skills.  During breaks, the instructors talked to campers about various aspects of the game.  Their sponsors provide hydration and lunch.  This included included A-Game sports drink and Publix subs.

Baseball and Community Building

Campers toughed it out in that sweltering Central Florida heat and gained valuable baseball instruction.  Johnny Damon interacted quite naturally with the campers.  He answered all their questions, took lot of pictures and signed autographs.  The kids had a great time!  At the end, they put it all together with a fun and friendly whiffle ball game.

My son George getting hitting instruction from Zach Stokes of the Winter Garden Squeeze (West Florida).

There were plenty of baseball hands on deck as well.  There’s a long list of the Winter Garden Squeeze players who participated.  Brighton Taylor (St. Peters), Brayden Broome (Samford), Zachary Stokes (West Florida), Garrett Brewer (Seminole State) and Andreaus Lewis (Pensacola State) joined in the morning.  Tyler Ostendorf (Seminole State), Billy Duby (Western Kentucky), Andrew Lewis (Pensacola State) and Dalton Robinson (East Florida State) helped in the afternoon.  The camp was also assisted by West Orange (Warriors) High School Head Coach Kyle Flanigan and players from West Orange and Olympia High Schools.

The Squeeze’s Brighton Taylor talking to a group of campers.

The Johnny Damon Baseball Summer Camp was the perfect collaboration of like-minded organizations.  They shared a common purpose of baseball and community outreach.  There’s a lot of potential to build on this event and expand the existing baseball culture in the Winter Garden area. I’m looking forward to seeing how they build on this success in the years to come.

 

***Photo credit goes to Winter Garden Squeeze intern Lindsey Tellez.***

%d bloggers like this: