Star pitchers lend a helping hand

Posted on Sunday, November 16, 2008

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One had just been recognized as being among the top pitchers in baseball, one was facing milliondollar contract negotiations and several still faced the uncertainty that comes with life in the minor leagues.

But for a particularly blustery afternoon at Dickey-Stephens Park in North Little Rock, it was hard to tell the pro ballplayers from the kids.

“It makes you all warm inside,” said North Little Rock native and Central Arkansas Christian alumnus A. J. Burnett, who spent 2008 pitching for the Toronto Blue Jays.

Burnett joined American League Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee, of Benton, Los Angeles Angels pitchers Dustin and Dylan Moseley, of Texarkana, Texas Rangers first baseman Ben Broussard and a handful of minor leaguers that included Bryant’s Travis Wood for a youth clinic sponsored by Miracle League of Arkansas.

The players spent the early afternoon working with children at Dickey-Stephens Park before moving to the Junior Deputy baseball complex in Little Rock to work with a group of developmentally disabled children.

This was the second year of the event, which was spearheaded by Little Rock-based agent Darek Braunecker, whose clients include Lee and Burnett.

Watching Burnett clown around while working a first base pick-off drill as Lee helped kids with bullpen sessions, it seemed clear none of the players needed much convincing to take part.

“Each one of them said, ‘We’ll be there,’” Braunneker said. “Their involvement is so sincere. It’s genuine. You watch this for a couple of minutes, and you see these guys are here because they want to be here.”

Lee has endured a hectic week, highlighted by Thursday’s landslide Cy Young vote. But the former Arkansas Razorbacks left-hander said the chance to promote the game and work with handicapped children made showing up worthwhile.

“If it wasn’t for people who love the game, I wouldn’t have a job,” Lee said. “You’ve got to give back. You’ve got kids with disabilities, and you’re giving them a chance to get on the field and play a game they usually wouldn’t get to play.”

Burnett, meanwhile, is making news of his own, albeit for different reasons. After going 18-10 with a 4. 07 ERA in 2008, Burnett has opted out of the final two years of his contract and can expect a heavy bidding war as a free agent.

“Darek has been real busy the last couple of days,” Burnett said. “We’re going to sit down next week and discuss all our options and see where it leads us.”

Braunecker said he expects progress on Burnett’s situation sooner rather than later.

“We’re being somewhat methodical,” Braunecker said. “We know the interested parties. Now we’ll begin speaking with the clubs.”

Though Lee said he and Burnett always make a point of catching up with each other whenever the Indians play the Blue Jays, Burnett has so far passed on pressing the new Cy Young winner for pitching advice.

“I don’t talk with Cliff a lot,” Burnett said with a laugh. “He’s left-handed. I don’t mess with left-handers. I don’t bother with them.”


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