BRADENTON — Twenty years ago, Garth Brooks made his first spring training foray, working out with the San Diego Padres to raise awareness for his fledgling charity.
Now, the country music legend is 57. He’s carrying a little extra weight and his facial hair shows more salt and pepper than before. Covering ground on the baseball diamond is more difficult, and, man, he’s sore after a workout.
"Sorer then hell," Brooks said this week. "Everything hurts. But it's so much fun."
Brooks just finished spending the first two weeks of spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates in Bradenton, participating in drills while promoting his “Teammates For Kids” foundation.
"He was a welcome addition to camp," Pirates manager Clint Hurdle said. "As I shared with our team and I shared with Garth, the respect and passion he has for the game, it stood above everything else while he was out here.
"We folded him in. This wasn't a distraction," Hurdle added. "This wasn't another part of camp. He came in and did the drills and did the work and moved around as one of the men embraced by the team. I thought it went very well. I know the players appreciated it. I know he appreciated it. And obviously his charity is going to be very appreciative of it."
Brooks has done this three times before, with the Padres, Mets and Royals, but this time is a little extra special. Despite growing up in Oklahoma, Brooks said he grew up a Pirates fan, and that's not necessarily a surprise since his childhood coincided with Pittsburgh's decade of dominance in the 1970's.
Brooks said his "life changed" when he was nine and Pirates legend Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash off the coast of Puerto Rico while on a relief mission to help those affected by an earthquake in Nicaragua in 1972. Since then, he said, he wanted to work to help children who were less fortunate.
"It's pretty cool that it's full circle all the way around for the guy who started this in my heart," Brooks said. "It's neat to be associated with the family that he's associated with. This is a really beautiful thing and really kind of close to your heart, so it's really neat to wear black and gold. I don't know how it gets better than that."
So during camp -- in between working out -- Brooks spreads the word of his charity, which began two decades ago in Padres camp, asking for donations and asking players to tell their friends around the game and throughout sports. His first year, 60 sports players donated, and now the pool has grown to 4,500 athletes across various sports from baseball to bull riding raising over $100 million to children in need.
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Donations are tied to statistics, so Brooks asks for a player to donate a certain amount for each home run or strikeout, then goes back to connect those donations which sponsors to match that donation, with 100 percent of the proceeds going to kids in need.
"You'll take a player and he'll give you 100 bucks for every home run," Brooks said. "Our job is to find sponsors that will triple that, so that's 300 bucks for every home run. And then here's how you get into every locker room in the world, (telling them that) 100 percent of it goes to kids. It will always be the rule. We'll find someone else to take care of the overhead. You may be looking at a guy who will take care of that."
Brooks joked that he's not necessarily the household name he used to be. He said that one players confused him for country music artist Chris Stapleton.
"Everybody's great," Brooks said. "I'm telling all these athletes, you're helping kids you're never going to meet in your life. That's pretty sweet, man. So I hope all of them go to bed understanding the contribution they've done."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @EddieInTheYard,