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Pitcher Shawn Estes comes back to Lampe Park

by Chuck Smock

Shawn Estes used hard work, determination and raw athletic ability to achieve his dream of becoming a Major League baseball pitcher.

The former Douglas High star readily admits, however, that he didn’t understand the mechanics of pitching until well after he was selected 11th overall in the 1991 free-agent draft.

“I didn’t really harness much of anything until I got to the professional level in the minor leagues; and even to the big-league level,” Estes said Saturday during a morning break at a youth baseball and softball camp sponsored by the MeFiYi Foundation at Lampe Park. “It took me a lot longer than I would have liked it to. Athletically and physically, I had the ability, but it just took me a lot longer to find it mentally. And I still struggle with that from time to time.

“If I would have learned more (at a younger age), I think maybe it would have been a lot easier when I got older.”

And that’s the main reason Estes spent his Saturday at Lampe Park, where he started his baseball career playing T-ball two decades ago. The MeFiYi camp is the only one the San Francisco Giants starter does each year.

“This is where my roots are – Douglas County, and Gardnerville especially,” he said. “These are, hopefully, the future stars of Little League baseball in Douglas County. I’m trying to develop these kids and get some good work habits and good fundamentals at a young age.

“I wish I would have had that growing up. We didn’t have a lot of camps, if any camps, that I attended growing up, where I could have gotten some of the basic fundamentals of pitching, the mechanics of pitching.”

Boys and girls from all over Northern Nevada jumped at the chance to spend the day with Estes, Houston Astros pitcher Reese Borges, former U.S. Olympic softball player Jody Schwartz and current Sonoma State University softball player Amy Prebble.

Elko’s Brad Niman made the long trip to Gardnerville with several of his buddies from Spring Creek Middle School, including Taylor Mieres, who was attending the camp for the third year in a row.

“It’s cool because we don’t get to see a lot of pros around where we live,” Niman said. “We come here and we see him and he puts a lot of confidence in us and shows us what we’re doing wrong.”

The Elko youngster said Estes quickly made all of the participants feel relaxed, despite the fact that they were standing on the pitching mound with a Major League All Star.

“He’s different than most people,” Niman said. “He knows a lot of stuff and he’s seen a lot of people. And he’s famous.

“I think it’s cool that he does this camp. That’s showing how you really care and do stuff for people and you’re not just some mean guy that just plays baseball and thinks he’s all that.”

MeFiYi director JoJo Townsell, a Hug High graduate who went on to play football at UCLA and professionally for the New York Jets, said Estes’ humble attitude allows him to communicate effectively with players of all ability levels.

“After they get over the initial shock that he really is here – someone they have learned to respect and admire for his ability – they find out he’s just a down-home, down-to-earth type of guy who is not flustered by the celebrity status that he has attained,” Townsell said. “They can see he’s a regular guy who’s acting a lot like the coaches they see everyday.”

The MeFiYi Foundation uses money from the camp to support high school and youth sports programs throughout Northern Nevada. The organization has recently made donations to the Douglas and Hug high school baseball and softball programs as well as youth baseball and softball leagues in Sparks and Pershing County.

At many youth sports camps featuring celebrity athletes, the stars show up for an hour or two, pat a few kids on the back, sign a few autographs and then slip away for an afternoon of golf or fishing. That wasn’t the situation Saturday, as Estes and the rest of the instructors worked individually with each kid. In addition to pitching, the participants also ran through infield, outfield and hitting drills.

At one point, when a player admitted that a sore back was preventing him from bending over to touch his toes – which Estes was asking each player to do to emphasize the importance of the follow-through in pitching – Estes stopped and showed all of the players a few stretches they should do to loosen up the muscles in their backs.

Townsell smiled as he watched Estes work with one of the small groups of players.

“Shawn does a great job teaching the kids and the best thing about it is he enjoys it,” Townsell said. “You can really tell he enjoys being around the kids and he wants to really make sure they go away with something that can help them improve.

“It’s been like this every year he’s been out here. He has a lot of enthusiasm and I think a lot of that has to do with he’s just very willing to give back. He knows what it was like when he was young and it just means a lot to him when he can come back here and do something really positive for his community.”

Schwartz, who played first base for the United States softball team that won the bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics, ran the morning sessions devoted to outfield work. Only minutes after starting with each new group, players of all ages and abilities were making sliding and diving catches. And, perhaps just as importantly, she instantly had the players encouraging each other and laughing with every great catch and near miss.

Schwartz’s eyes sparkled when she was asked about the primary objective of Saturday’s camp.

“To have fun,” she answered without hesitation, “to come out here and learn something and to have a good time. Hopefully, these kids, when they leave this camp, can take with them at least one thing they learned. And one thing I hope they take is a positive attitude. There are different ability levels out here and they’re all trying. And they’re having a good time while they’re trying.

“Also, I think the support that each kid can give to another, or that we as instructors can give to the kids is really important. Like JoJo said at the beginning, ‘Let’s all have a good time and support each other and let’s not put anybody down.’ And I think that’s the key to this.”

There’s a saying in baseball that the most important distance on the field is the six inches between the pitcher’s ears.

Estes, a left-hander who was drafted out of high school by the Seattle Mariners and traded along with Wilson Delgado to San Francisco for Salomon Torres on May 21, 1995, got the attention of pro scouts with a fastball that topped 90 mph and a good curveball that kept hitters off-balance. Knowing whether an upcoming pitch was going to hit the catcher’s mitt or the batter, though, was sometimes a guessing game.

“I tried to do more than I was capable of doing at that point,” Estes said. “I could throw the ball hard, but I didn’t know where it was going. I didn’t know how to throw it where I wanted to. I didn’t have anybody to take me aside and show me the mechanics of pitching.”

One day on the mound with Estes certainly won’t give a kid a one-way ticket to the Major Leagues – or even to a roster spot on his high school team, for that matter. But that didn’t seem to be the point Saturday. Just getting kids started in the right direction was the biggest goal.

“It’s good to build a solid foundation at a young age,” Estes said. “It prevents a lot of arm injuries, for one, and it also gives kids something to think about. I think it excites them a little bit that there’s more to pitching than just going out there and throwing the ball.

“We try to tell the kids to have a good time, but at the same time it takes some hard work to get to the big-league level or even the collegiate level. It begins now.

“I definitely am telling them it does take a lot of hard work. It doesn’t just take picking up a ball and throwing it. That’s the fun thing to do and the easy thing to do and you want to have fun as a kid, but you have to work hard at these things. You have to really take pride in what you do if you want to be as good as you can be.”

The message wasn’t lost on Douglas High junior Rick Cagle.

“I’m just out here to have some fun, to work on my fundamentals, and maybe, get some pointers from Shawn Estes,” Cagle said. “Being on the mound with him is something I’ll never forget. It’s something you tell your kids about. It’s like being with a great, like a Hall of Famer, hopefully, if everything works out.

“But this isn’t just a fun little camp where you stand around and talk to everybody. He’s making us work. He’d be a great coach. He’s telling us when we’re doing it the wrong way and how to do it the right way. They’re making us work and run. And I like that.”