By Jim Henry
Globe Sports Editor
There’s no hiding the excitement.
“I see a kid (at a distance) who’s going on this trip, and he’s smiling ear to ear,” Joplin Cardinals head coach Mark Etter said. “I get goosebumps seeing how thrilled they are. Everyone is on pins and needles.”
Twelve Joplin Little League baseball players — Franklin Queen, Lane Galbraith, Stephen Joseph, Mason Finnell, Trace Myers, Jack Owen, Alex Etter, Jake Young, Kyler Kemp, Jamie Brame, Dylan Parker and Dawson Herron — along with coaches Etter, Steve Parker and Tom Owen leave today for Phoenix to participate first in a tournament and then in activities leading up to next Tuesday’s Major League Baseball All-Star Game.
All 12 players suffered losses in the May 22 tornado that struck Joplin. Sunny Jim Park on 20th Street, the home of Joplin South Little League, was destroyed by the tornado, but work has begun on rebuilding the park and the plan is to be finished in time for opening ceremonies next year.
“These young ballplayers have been dealt a blow that no one should have to go through, losing their homes, cherished family treasures and even their baseball equipment,” said Mike Greninger, Missouri District 2 Little League administrator. “The Jr. RBI Classic will give these young people a chance to return to the game that they all love in the biggest way. We are so grateful to Major League Baseball for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”
The Joplin contingent flies out of Tulsa at 9 a.m. today and arrives in Phoenix in mid-afternoon.
“It’s my understanding we’ll be met at the Phoenix airport by Major League Baseball security, and they will accompany us everywhere as a team,” Etter said. “We’ll be staying in the dorms at Arizona State.”
The Reviving Baseball in Innercities (RBI) program is sponsored by Major League Baseball. This is the third year that MLB has hosted the Jr. RBI Classic, and this year’s classic includes nine baseball teams and four softball teams.
“Major League Baseball created the Jr. RBI Classic to give young players the chance to play baseball in a unique setting, meet interesting people in a location outside their normal environment, and most of all expose them to the world of possibilities that is available to them,” Tim Brosnan, Executive Vice President, Business, MLB, said in a press release. “The event will provide countless memories both on and off the field for this special group of young people.”
The Jr. RBI Classic games will be played on Friday and Saturday at Salt River Fields at Talking Stick, the shared spring training site of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. Games will be played in the early morning and early evening to avoid the mid-day heat.
“The boys are supposed to get full replica St. Louis Cardinals uniforms, head to toe,” Coach Etter said. “All they have to bring is their glove and batting gloves. Everything else will be taken care of by the Cardinals.”
Then on Sunday, the teams become special guests of MLB for All-Star Game activities, including the Futures Game and Celebrity All-Star Game on Sunday and the Home Run Derby on Monday night.
“We’ll be on the field with the players while they are warming up,” Coach Etter said. “Rumor has it that some of our players could be on the field during the Home Run Derby, shagging the flyballs that don’t go out of the park.
“Who in their wildest dreams thought the boys would get this opportunity, much less a 44-year-old fat, bald man. The ground swell of kindness is similar to what we’ve experienced here in Joplin. Everybody is reaching out and making sure these boys have a nice getaway.”