To These Kids, They've Earned Halos : * Angels: Players teach schoolchildren the finer arts of batting, throwing and fielding at first of series of clinics.


Angel outfielder Luis Polonia grabbed some soft, cloth-covered baseballs and walked to a few feet from where Danny Arecheiga stood holding a bat.

"I want you to hit this ball," Polonia told Arecheiga, a 10-year-old fourth-grader at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School. "Don't swing crazy and try to see the ball when you hit it."

The boy took three cuts before finally connecting with one of Polonia's underhand tosses. His classmates cheered. Polonia clapped. A proud Arecheiga rejoined his friends, smiling.

Such scenes repeated themselves throughout the morning Thursday on the grounds of the school as Polonia, second baseman Luis Sojo, coaches Bruce Hines and Rick Turner and Darrell Miller, a former major leaguer who is now director of community relations for the club, gave tips on batting, fielding and throwing to Edison students.

The clinic was the first of five the Angels will conduct in conjunction with MCI this summer in predominantly Latino areas of several cities. The next one will be held by the same instructors on June 27 at San Juan Capistrano Elementary School, and the final three at parks in Costa Mesa, Brea and Ontario.

Bob Wagner, the team's director of marketing, said the Angel players and coaches volunteered for the sessions. He added that the recent addition of Mexican-born pitcher Fernando Valenzuela to the roster had nothing to do with the club's decision to target the clinics for the Latino community.

"We met in November in San Francisco with the MCI people, and they said they wanted to do some programs in a Hispanic market," Wagner said. "It's purely coincidental. But by the same token, we've been working to get involved in this type of opportunity, and (signing Valenzuela) works out perfect for us."

It also worked out well for the children at Edison. About 400 out of the 800 enrolled at the school, which Assistant Principal Peggy Immerman said is 75% to 80% Latino, participated in the clinic. The only ones not involved were the students in kindergarten and first-grade classes or the 200 or so now on vacation from the year-round school.

Principal Consuelo Raley said the anticipation had been building all week.

"The kids have been dying (to see the ballplayers) for days," Raley said. "All they've been doing is asking, 'Who are they? When are they coming?' "

When the Angels finally arrived at about 9:45, the kids were already congregated on the playing field. After a brief speech by Miller, they broke into four groups and headed for one of the designated areas for their instruction. They moved from one area to the next every 20 minutes.

In one of the areas, Polonia talked about batting. He showed the kids how to grip the bat, how to keep their heads down when they swung, how to position their feet. He answered questions, posed for photographs and, yes, he even signed autographs. He got a hand when he told one of the groups that he believed women would someday play in the major leagues.

"I enjoy doing this," said Polonia, who is batting .304 and leads the American League in stolen bases with 22. "I believe that doing this kind of thing now will help some children in the future."

While Polonia helped the kids with the finer points of hitting, Sojo and Miller gave fielding lessons a few feet away. Venezuelan-born Sojo, now in his first full season with the Angels after a brief stint with the Toronto Blue Jays, explained the mechanics behind catching grounders and throwing to a base and then went through a pantomime to illustrate his points.

Sojo and Miller also had the kids line up along the edge of the infield dirt and rolled grounders to them. Some, like 12-year-old Gustavo Espinoza, got the additional treat of using Sojo's glove for the drill.

"It was exciting to use his glove," said Espinoza, a sixth-grader.

For his part, Sojo seemed to be getting a kick out of the clinic. He repeatedly encouraged the kids and laughed when those with the stronger arms fired the ball back at him. Like the others, he also took time out for photo requests.

"When I was a kid, I didn't have a chance to go to these things," Sojo said. "Now I have the opportunity to do it for children. I believe this stimulates them."

Once the instructions were over, the four groups of kids retreated to their original spot on the grounds for a pep talk from Polonia about staying in school and away from drugs.

"I really enjoyed this more than you guys did," Polonia said. "You can make your dreams come true if you stay away from drugs. . . . I had the right parents who gave me the right education. Here I am, the poor kid from the Dominican Republic with a dream."

The clinic at San Juan Capistrano Elementary School is scheduled for June 27 from noon to 2 p.m. Wagner said the same group of Angel players and coaches would participate, but he wasn't sure if Valenzuela, who Thursday was placed on the 15-day disabled list because of possible heart abnormalities, would be included in future appearances.

"At this point we will not involve him because we are looking at him to do the job (on the field)," Wagner said. "He's got enough things to worry about right now."

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