Tournaments : : Story
Friday, July 27, 2012

EC Braves, SMART reach Phoenix

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: S.M.A.R.T

PEORIA, Ariz. - On Thursday morning, big right-hander Jackson Smith, a 2013 South Carolina commit out of Hartselle (Ala.) High School, pitched a five inning, eight-strikeout one-hitter to help keep the East Cobb Braves undefeated at the 17u Perfect Game World Series.

Later in the day, Smith joined Braves teammates Anthony Young and Zach Flowers on a trip to downtown Phoenix that seemed to transcend what the young prospects had pursued earlier in the day.

The Braves and head coach Kevin Baldwin are involved in a partnership with S.M.A.R.T. - "Socially Mature Athletes Reaching Thousands" - and its founder Matt Dale in an effort to make the young ballplayers more aware of their surroundings within their own community as well as those baseball has given them the opportunity to visit.

On Thursday night, the Braves trio of Smith, Young and Flowers visited "Hands of Phoenix", a program at the Salvation Army Family Homeless Shelter in downtown Phoenix. They read books to youngsters who were at the shelter, signed baseballs and basically just chatted and befriended them for a couple of hours. This was not the first time Braves players have done this during their travels this summer, and the visits are having an impact on everyone involved.

"I love meeting the kids and putting a smile on their face," Smith said Friday afternoon from the Peoria Sports Complex. "I'm trying to understand what they go through and try to help them through it.

"When we walk in they get a big smile on their face, and they think we're famous," he continued with an almost embarrassed smile on his face. "It just makes them so happy and I'm glad I can put some joy in their hearts. It makes me feel really good just helping the kids out and trying to be role model for them."

Dale, the founder and executive director of S.M.A.R.T., said his organization focuses on three primary areas: community outreach, social media awareness and mentoring and peer pressure awareness.

"We feel like those three things together with baseball will help mold (the young ballplayers) into a smarter athlete," Dale said Friday. "I think it's really special that someone like Jackson (Smith) can compete in the best and most competitive event (the 17u PG World Series) in the country and visit homeless kids and put a smile on their face, all in the same day."

Baldwin, the highly successful coach of the East Cobb Braves 17u, felt it was very important for his team to be involved with Dale's endeavor.

"I've been around this game for a long time and especially at this age (17), I think just the opportunity for these kids to go to these kind of situations and meet people who don't quite have it as good as they do really opens their eyes," Baldwin said Friday. "(They should recognize that) baseball is something that I have the ability to do to make myself better and also see what I can do to give back.

"What we're trying to do is show these kids that not only do you play hard on the field, but you have to do stuff off the field and make yourself a good person because baseball can be taken  away from you at any time."

The S.M.A.R.T. program started with the EC Braves 17u but this fall will expand to include all of the East Cobb upper echelon teams in the age groups from 12u on up. Because the partnership was just developed this spring when the EC Braves 17u were already on the road, all of the work to date has been in the cities the Braves have visited. A concerted effort will take place in the fall that will benefit several programs in the Marietta, Ga., area.

"We're planning on building a Habitat for Humanity house in the fall and winter and we're basically going to try to get a group of kids doing something every Sunday," Baldwin said. "We want to get other (travel ball) organizations involved  ... but we want to build our blueprint with East Cobb first and then move out after that."

Shortstop Chad Mabini, a 2012 prospect enrolled at Tallahassee (Fla.) Community College, is with the Braves this week and has been involved with four S.M.A.R.T. community visits this summer.

"It just lets me see how less fortunate people can benefit from seeing baseball players in general, and just seeing the smiles on their faces," he said. "They're excited because they don't get the opportunity to see baseball players that often."

In a telephone interview with Perfect Game in early June, Dale emphasized that his group is dependent on not only the EC Braves 17u, but Perfect Game as well.

"We're very open for ideas and suggestions and I'm looking at this box of Perfect Game baseballs right now," he said in June. "We take Perfect Game baseballs everywhere we go and whatever we're doing, we're going to give them signed baseballs because the next Jason Heyward is going to be in there with a Perfect Game baseball. Either way, the sky's the limit."

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