PRINCETON — Jamie Nelson can still remember a baseball clinic he attended as a youth at Angels Stadium.

“Just looking at the guys in their uniforms, I was in awe,” said Nelson, the Princeton Devil Rays’ manager, of a childhood visit to the home of the then-California Angels. “I don’t even remember what anybody said, but I was just happy to be there and I’m sure a lot of these young kids are feeling the same way.”

Definitely. Just ask Wayne Ryan, the girls basketball coach for the Summers County Bobcats, who brought his son, Matt, and family friend, Sean Meadows, to Hunnicutt Field on Saturday for a baseball clinic.

“First of all, they’re going to get instruction,” said Ryan, a former college baseball player. “Most of all, they learn to love baseball and before you’re good at anything, you’ve got to love it...

“My little boy has a lot of interest in baseball, and baseball is a good family sport. Things like this weren’t available (when I was a kid). Kids have a lot more opportunities and I think that is nice.”

Rare is the opportunity to spend time playing baseball with actual professionals, but it happened for 84 children during the 11th annual Devil Rays’ baseball clinic on a sunny Saturday morning in Princeton.

“For kids in this region, to be able to come into a stadium this size and get to play on this sort of field for the day is good,” P-Rays’ general manager Jim Holland said. “Hopefully it will regenerate their love for the game and keep them interested in baseball as they get older just because they’ve had the opportunity to get out there.”

Smiles, laughs and instruction were shared by all, not just by the participating boys and girls — ages 7-15 — but also by the P-Rays themselves, including center fielder Dustin Biell.

“I have lots of fun doing this...,” Biell said. “I like helping out little kids and seeing what they’ve got and what they need to work on.

“Hopefully, later on down the road, it will help them in giving them a shot playing higher up. Maybe not professional, but maybe at least high school or college so that would be real cool.”

The same goes for the coaches, many of whom were like Ryan, never having the chance for this type of experience. That includes Rafael DeLeon, the P-Rays’ hitting coach, who was raised in the Dominican Republic.

“It’s great because when you work with these little kids, you remind yourself when you were a kid too,” said DeLeon, who is nicknamed ‘Sweet P’, short for ‘Sweet Potato’. “You have the same mentality. You want to be with these people, many times in baseball something is learned from those people.

“When I work with these kids, I feel like myself when I was a kid.”

Name a basic fundamental of baseball and the kids experienced it on this day, from hitting and throwing, to running the bases and defense. Many of the drills were the same employed by the Devil Rays themselves.

“It’s neat to see them all out here having a good time, and fortunately for us, God blessed us with some good weather,” Nelson said. “It was supposed to be raining, but at least we got to do it and as I look at all these kids, the good majority of them look like they’re having a pretty good time.

“That’s what it’s here for, they’re young, they’re getting on the field and getting to work with these pro ballplayers and having a pretty good time. To me it’s well worth it and fortunately we got the weather to do it.”

That kind of sentiment was appreciated by Ryan, the coach of the state champion Bobcats girls basketball team, who took his family to see the Cincinnati Reds earlier this week.

“I just appreciate the Devil Rays organization willing to give back to the kids,” Ryan said. “It’s just a great experience and a great opportunity.”

Princeton first began hosting clinics for kids in 1998, the first season the Devil Rays became its affiliate. Holland said it has drawn as many as 125 in the past, but was pleased with the 84 that participated Saturday.

Not only did they leave with a little more knowledge of baseball, but also with goodies that included player autographs, a Devil Rays’ bat bag, free admission to Saturday’s game with the Kingsport Mets and the assurance of returning next year.

“Tampa Bay was very open to doing these sort of things because they’re a very community-spirited-and-minded ball club,” Holland said. “We just picked it up right with our first year with the Devil Rays.

“You have all these people going out the door saying, ‘See you next year’ so that is really important too.”

Princeton pitching coach Marty DeMerritt knows that many of the clinic participants have the same dreams as the current P-Rays. If the instruction given on Saturday helps even one child reach his goals, then it’s well worth the time.

“I’ve been doing clinics for many, many years, and it is really neat to have the young kids come out and having us help them,” DeMerritt said. “If one or two of them walked away from this clinic learning something...

“Because that’s what we say in the game. Of course we don’t want that, but if we had three players off of this team make it to the big leagues it would be an organizational success. So, yes, those things are really important in the game today.

“It can motivate them and they can walk away with learning something and I’m sure the parents are pleased with that.”

Getting the chance to rub shoulders with professional baseball players is a dream realized. Nelson figures these kids enjoyed it as much as he did so many years ago.

“I would imagine that would be a lot of fun, they come here and watch these kids play and now all of a sudden they’re talking to them,” Nelson said. “I’m just glad we got the weather and I hope each one of them is enjoying it and I hope they’ll retain some stuff.

“Hopefully they’ll go home and write some of this stuff down and it will help them.”

DeMerritt, who has served as pitching coach with the San Francisco Giants and Chicago Cubs, has long enjoyed coaching young kids. The more opportunities to teach, the better.

“We do a lot of that in the big leagues,” DeMerritt said. “You will have all different kinds of clinics weekly to get the kids involved.

“You can never do enough for the kids, that is the best part of the game.”

—Contact Brian Woodson

bwoodson@bdtonline.com