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They Can Field Dreams, Along With Grounders

Rene Rodriguez, a stocky third baseman from Gardena High School blushed a little and smiled a lot.

Rodriguez had made a 40-mile trip to Biola University’s baseball field in La Mirada so he could participate in the inaugural George Genovese Games. The games were organized by the Children of Promise, a group of men who try to find athletic scholarships for children from the inner cities. George Voita, the founder of Children of Promise, sent invitations to high schools in Los Angeles and Orange Counties. Bring yourselves, your spikes, your gloves and Children of Promise would have pro scouts and college coaches in the bleachers. The scouts might offer a contract some day. The coaches were coming with scholarships in their pockets.

Rodriguez, 5 feet 8 and 210 pounds, received one of the three $200 scholarships that the Children of Promise awarded on the spot, gathered from proceeds of the $10 admission fee. “This is so great,” Rodriguez said. “I didn’t expect to get money today. And the chance for all these coaches to see me, wow.”

Mike Easler, hitting coach for the St. Louis Cardinals, came to the camp. “I’m happy to be here,” Easler said as he watched a skinny second baseman from Crenshaw High named Craig Williams run so fast to first base that he was a blur. “Look at that speed,” Easler said. “That’s what you have to look at on a day like this. Talent. Raw talent. We need to do more of this, give these kids a chance. Give these kids a look.”

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Easler sat on a picnic table bench eating a hamburger cooked on a grill by volunteers. Even though the afternoon was cloudy, even if some raindrops fell, it was baseball weather to Easler. Every kind of weather is baseball weather to Easler and it makes him sad to see so many kids from urban high schools who have never felt a rush from hearing a bat make contact with a ball.

“I grew up in Cleveland,” Easler said, “and my dad worked two jobs. It wasn’t easy. But my dad would tell me stories about the old Negro leagues and about the players he loved watching and it was those stories that helped me love the game. I still love the game. I want kids now to love the game and so many of them don’t have fathers who tell them baseball stories.”

Nathan Ware stood with his chin cupped in his hands and his eyes squinted in concentration. Ware is the Los Angeles-area scout for the Cincinnati Reds. He was a three-sport athlete at Venice High and Cal State Los Angeles. Ware fell in love with baseball when he was 7 and saw Willie Mays play for the first time.

“It was on TV, a game at Ebbets Field, and I was watching this guy who hustled all over the place,” Ware said, “and I asked my dad, ‘Who was that? He was hitting the ball a country mile and he was a black player.’ My dad said, ‘Willie Mays.’ That was it. I wanted to be a baseball player.”

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Avery Ware, Nathan’s son and a senior at Hamilton High, was playing at the camp. “I wanted to pass my love of the game to my sons,” Nathan said.

Sitting in another part of the bleachers was Bob Steinkamp, head coach of Bellevue University. “It’s an NAIA school outside of Omaha,” Steinkamp said. “We’re ranked No. 4 in the country in the preseason poll. We won the national championship in 1995.” This is a speech Steinkamp gives to every player who walks by. “The California kids are a little skeptical about coming out to Nebraska. It’s kind of a different lifestyle for them.”

By the end of the eight-hour day of drills and games, Steinkamp said there were four or five players worthy of full scholarships. Steinkamp was particularly impressed with a pitcher named Ivan Lopez.

Lopez was throwing bullets, hitting 87 mph on the numerous radar guns. The Sylmar High senior was listed as 6-2 and 155 pounds.

“This kid is only going to get stronger and when he gets stronger he’s going to throw harder,” Steinkamp said. “This kid is a prospect.”

Sitting 100 feet away from Steinkamp, George Genovese agreed. Genovese is 78. He was a longtime scout for the San Francisco Giants and he has signed such players as Barry Bonds, Jack Clark, Garry Maddox, George Foster, Chili Davis and Matt Williams.

In other words, Genovese knows talent.

So when Genovese pointed toward Lopez and said, “This kid has got something special,” you knew that Steinkamp would not leave Biola with Lopez’s name on a scholarship offer.

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But Genovese also was impressed with another pitcher, Brian Poetschlag, a 6-2, 170-pound pitcher from Anaheim Magnolia High. And catcher Rafael Arroyo from North Hills Monroe High and shortstop Ryan Justice from Cypress.

“This is such a great thing,” Genovese said. “Bringing these kids out here. You know, not all of them have played on the best fields or had the best coaching. But you can see athletic ability and you can see baseball instincts and that’s what you look for.”

As happy as he was with the 10 pro scouts in attendance, Voita was happier that college coaches such as Steinkamp and a crew of three from Howard University made it.

“The odds are so slim you’re going to make it to the majors,” Voita said. “We need to get these kids into college, junior college. They need to use baseball as a means to an end. And learn to love baseball too.”

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Diane Pucin can be reached at her e-mail address: diane.pucin@latimes.com.


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