As Randy Kelley glanced at a group of youngsters taking ground balls Wednesday at Whitey Herzog Field, he probably saw a little bit of his son, Mike Kelley, in each one of them.
The first Mike Kelley Foundation Baseball Camp is being held this week on the field once used by its namesake. Mike Kelley died May 14, 2015 at age 28 after battling cancer and his love of baseball is being passed on to more than 130 youngsters who signed up for the free instructional sessions.
With it being the first camp, no one was quite sure who would show up or who might volunteer to help out.
“This has exceeded our wildest dreams,” said Randy Kelley, a St. Clair County associate judge. “I had some high hopes and expectations and every day they’ve been exceeded. These kids are great and their enthusiasm has been off the charts. Mike Kelley’s smiling every day.”
Randy Kelley recounted a story of one youngster who came to the camp without any equipment.
“That’s the idea, he said. “There’s kids that didn’t have gloves, didn’t have bats ... and they’re out here on Day 3 and loving it more and more.”
When Blessed Sacrament grade school fifth-grader Hank Gomric smacked a home run over the fence and into the parking lot during a scrimmage game earlier in the week, Kelley joked about charging him $400 for a new windshield.
This has exceeded our wildest dreams. I had some high hopes and expectations and every day they’ve been exceeded.
Why did Gomric come to the camp?
“It’s fun and it’s free, so everybody can play if they want,” he said. “It’s really fun. I knew a lot of my friends would be here.”
Gomric said the scrimmage games at the end of the day were the most fun. He’s been to other camps, but said “this one’s the best of all.”
While there are many quality baseball camps and clinics for area players to choose from, this one is special in several ways.
It’s free, it honors a former area baseball player and includes the kind of quality instruction rarely seen at a youth-level camp.
Former San Francisco Giants pitcher Kirk Rueter made a guest coaching appearance on Monday and was among those sought out as instructors by former Althoff High coach Brett Isaacs. Former Chicago Cubs pitcher and current Althoff High baseball coach Randy Wells, a Belleville native, has been an active participant every day, with coaches from other area schools helping out as well.
Belleville East coach Ryan Wiggs made it out, as did former East head coach Todd Blomberg and East assistant coach and longtime Gateway Grizzlies pitcher Mark Brackman. Former Lebanon coach Dave Causey and Belleville West assistant coach Corey Muendlein were part of the staff along with former minor-leaguer Andy Schutzenhofer and Althoff football assistant Austin Frazier.
The impressive list of instructor included many of Kelley’s friends and former teammates.
There were also former former college players and even a pro hockey player in New Jersey Devils prospect Connor Chatham, a friend of the family who was happy to be part of the mix.
“He’s out here volunteering to do stuff,” Kelley said of Chatham, the Devils’ third-round pick in 2014. “He’s not a baseball kid, but he loves it.”
Kids that normally wouldn’t get to do something like this or have an experience like this, to see the smiles on their faces .... that’s what’s rewarding for us - and we know it would have been rewarding for Mike.
Mike Kelley’s mother, Carrie Kelley, was also at the field Wednesday joined by many of her friends in organizing food and drinks for the youngsters. Others donated items for the camp or simply donated their time.
This was truly a family affair — made better by the extended family of those who knew Mike Kelley.
Not everyone was overly enthusiastic about the camp. One youngster was crying on the first day and had to be coaxed out of his car before registering.
“He wasn’t sure if he wanted to be here,” said Tom Kelley, Mike Kelley’s brother and former baseball teammate at Althoff High and with the Belleville Hilgards American Legion club. “The dad came back and picked him up and hour and a half later and he went sprinting back to the car with a big smile on his face. He hopped in and said how awesome it was and how he couldn’t wait to be back the next day.”
Tom Kelley said the wide range of baseball talent was another unique aspect of the camp.
“There are kids out here that are already playing select ball and love this game,” he said. “It’s great to help them out and teach them new skills. But the kids that are unsure about baseball and come out here and learn to love it or gain interest, that’s a thing that’s really exciting for us. If we can just get one kid that normally wouldn’t have been a baseball player to get interested in the game or stay interested in the game ... if we can impact one kid that way, that’s more than we could ever ask for.”
Kelley was impressed at the high level of instruction being shared with the youngsters.
“It definitely improved the level of the camp and what these kids can learn,” he said. “I played through high school baseball and Senior Legion and there’s some drills that these guys are doing that I’d never even seen before.”
Tom Kelley smiled and got a little emotional as he watched some youngsters sprint by him toward their next station at the camp.
It was a hot, sunny Wednesday but there was no place that he would rather have been. This was his brother’s legacy and the metro-east baseball community was doing its part to share a little baseball love and pass it on.
“Kids that normally wouldn’t get to do something like this or have an experience like this, to see the smiles on their faces .... that’s what’s rewarding for us,” Kelley said, “and we know it would have been rewarding for Mike.”