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Youths get in free to baseball fest

Opening day at Al Lang Stadium likely will be special, if not memorable, for about 1,000 Pinellas County children.

Organizers of the opening celebrations for the 1994 spring training season plan a full day of "positive baseball experiences" for local underprivileged youths Saturday.

The event, billed as the Festival of Baseball, will coincide with the first home game of the season between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Baltimore Orioles. Both teams play their home spring games at Al Lang Stadium.

Organizations such as the Boys and Girls Club, Big Brothers/Sisters, Children's Home Society of Florida, Homeless Coalition and Tampa Children's Home are among those sponsoring children for the festival. The organizations will give the children tickets to attend the game.

According to organizers, the day's events will welcome the spring season and expose area children to the game.

"We want the day's events to be symbolic of all the positive things in baseball," said David Feaster, chairman of the Baseball Council, a committee of the St. Petersburg Area Chamber of Commerce. "It's just a very positive baseball situation where no one is making money.

"Some of these kids will never see a baseball game or never get a chance to meet a major leaguer."

Among the attractions will be batting cages and radar guns to measure how fast children throw, as well as T-ball games for toddlers. The attractions will be free to children with game tickets. In addition, baseballs autographed by Tampa Bay area natives Dwight Gooden and Gary Sheffield and other collectibles will be given away between innings, Feaster said.

Members of the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association are scheduled to give batting and fielding clinics before and after the game. Former players Ron LeFlore (nine years in the major leagues), Hal White (12), Bill Jurges (17), Ken Frailing (five) and Frank Smith (seven) are expected to participate.

John Cannon, director of the St. Petersburg YMCA, coordinated the search for the children and stressed that the response from local organizations, Little League, challenger leagues and corporate sponsors was positive.

"So far we have somewhere between 700 (and) 800 kids committed to attend," Cannon said. "But it'll be up to 1,000" by today.

"The response has been terrific," he said. "Everyone sees this as a chance to let the kids get an opportunity, for once in their lives, to experience the game of baseball at that level and to meet and shake hands with major league ballplayers."

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