YOKOTA AIR BASE, Japan — How often do Yokota youths get baseball tips from the pros? About as often as Major League ballplayers s enjoy a mid-day meal with GIs at Yokota’s Samurai Café.

Eight members of the Oakland Athletics, visiting Tokyo for this week’s MLB season-opening games against Seattle at Tokyo Dome, took three hours out of their schedule Sunday to visit with troops and their children, conducting a clinic for youngsters , then signing autographs and shaking hands at Bronco Field, then the base dining hall.

“What these people do for our country on a daily basis … we wanted to come out here and work with them and thank them,” said Mike Crowley, the A’s team president.

He and MLB officials led a delegation that included pitchers Brian Fuentes and Jerry Blevins, infielders Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington and outfielders Jonny Gomes, Josh Reddick, Collin Cowgill and Seth Smith. They choppered from Tokyo’s Hardy Barracks and spent three hours at Yokota before returning.

At Bronco Field, the youths were divided into groups, getting pointers on fielding and pitching, with plenty of autographs thrown in.

“Better technique,” Yokota High senior pitcher Jesse Christmas said of what he picked up from Fuentes. “Learning new skills is always helpful.”

Almost the entire Panthers squad, fresh off a 2-2 outing in the DODDS Japan tournament last weekend at Naval Air Facility Atsugi, turned out for Sunday’s clinic, including freshman outfielder Austin Halverson. “It’s a reminder that baseball is all about fun, especially when you’re doing it with the pros,” he said.

One former Panther who now works for MLB International in Tokyo, Shawn Novak, did much of the legwork for Sunday’s visit, plus Monday’s visit to Camp Zama by the Mariners and a joint trip Tuesday to Ishinomaki in northeast Japan, site of devastation from last year’s earthquake and tsunami.

“It’s a big opportunity for these kids,” Novak said as he observed the clinic. “These guys are up and coming stars. You just soak it all in and you adjust it to how you play.”

Autograph seekers represented kids of all ages. Garry Raymond, 12-year-old son of 5th Air Force vice commander Brig. Gen. Jay Raymond, wore a half-and-half Mariners-A’s jacket which got signed by all eight players – “Really cool,” he said.

Later at Samurai Café, 4-month-old Tyson Cruz, fully decked out in Athletics green and gold, became a huge hit with the players, each of whom signed Tyson’s beanie cap.

Tech Sgt. Johnny Payton Jr. and Staff Sgt. Carlos Sanchez of Yokota’s 374th Security Forces Squadron were on break from work when they were joined by Fuentes and Gomes for a meal and conversation. “Good by me. I was starving,” Fuentes said of his first time sampling military cuisine.

“We appreciate these guys,” said Payton, 36, of New Orleans. “This is nice, for them to come and show us some love. Definitely a morale booster.”

Fuentes said he once toured Walter Reed Army Medical Center to visit wounded GIs, something he called a “reality check,” and something he remembers when teams line up for the National Anthem before games. “We think and pray for these guys every day,” Fuentes said.

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Dave Ornauer has been employed by or assigned to Stars and Stripes Pacific almost continuously since March 5, 1981. He covers interservice and high school sports at DODEA-Pacific schools and manages the Pacific Storm Tracker.

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