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04/26/08 9:01 PM ET

Nats sponsor clinic for DC kids

Youngsters train with coaches, players at club's new home

WASHINGTON -- The baseball renaissance in the nation's capital surged this season with the opening of the Nationals' new stadium, Nationals Park, and fans of all ages have flocked to watch the national pastime played in the shadow of the Capitol building.

However, on this sun-drenched Saturday, those running the bases, fielding grounders and pitching in the bullpen were instead wide-eyed and excited D.C. area youth who were under the tutelage of the Nationals' coaching staff.

More than 130 kids, aged 4-18 from the D.C. RBI Program, which uses baseball to help youth enhance their sports and education efforts, participated in the first of a series of youth clinics sponsored by Smithfield Foods.

"This particular clinic, we dedicated to RBI as a commitment the club has to the Major League Baseball program," said Nationals director of community relations Barbara Silva. "We are committed 100 percent to participate in the community. It means a lot to the ownership and the players."

The kids received instruction from the Nationals' staff, including hitting coach Lenny Harris, third-base coach Tim Tolman and pitching coach Randy St. Claire, who was impressed by the dedication and progress made by some of the returning youngsters.

"With the progress that these kids have made, the coaches that work with these kids need to be applauded," said St. Claire, who has been with the Nationals since their inaugural season in 2005. "My first year back here, these kids could hardly throw the ball. They have done a great job. There are some kids that have really good arms. Each year, it gets better and better."

Among the returning participants was District native Chris Allen, a 15-year-old shortstop in training who loved the chance to have his daily practice routine reinforced by professional coaches.

"It helps you improve your skills when you work on things that your coaches are already telling you," said Allen, who said playing at Nationals Park adds to his motivation. "It encourages you to keep getting better at what you do, because one day, you can be on the field."

Allen was joined at the clinic by 10 teammates from the Seed Public Charter School, along with their coach Norman Hawkins, who said these clinics and the return of baseball to Washington provides another sporting outlet for the area's youth.

"In the beginning, since there was no [professional] baseball team, kids grew up on basketball and football," said Hawkins. "By bringing baseball back into the program, now kids are aware what the game is and understand what the game is about."

Added St. Claire: "Hopefully, it will continue to pay off and maybe bring inner-city baseball back into the spotlight."

Christine Eppstein, director of community affairs for Smithfield, said the affiliation with the Nationals was a perfect fit, as the company looks to promote education and proper nutrition, while also getting kids to be more active.

"We do believe this is a very good educational effort that also involves kids in baseball," said Eppstein. "Kids need to be outside more, exercise more. It's great that we were able to produce this partnership with the Nationals."

After the clinic, starting pitcher Tim Redding, catcher Wil Nieves, who hit the walk-off homer in the Nationals' 5-3 win over the Cubs on Friday, and outfielder Rob Mackowiak met with and signed autographs for the enthusiastic participants. Redding said he is thrilled that he and the rest of the organization can help promote the sport in the area.

"It's huge," said Redding, who did some clinics with the D.C. Boys & Girls Club earlier this year. "Every time you keep these kids off the streets and doing bad stuff, it brings a lot of smiles to us knowing we are helping kids get better at a sport we love."

Benjamin Standig is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.