HARTFORD — Children and adults alike can remember a time they pretended to be their favorite celebrity or professional athlete. For one seven-and-under select baseball team, they came as close as they could get Thursday at Hartford Memorial Park.
St. Louis Cardinals catcher Yadier Molina has won seven straight gold gloves in the last decade behind the plate and has a .285 batting average. On offense for the Cardinals, Molina has racked up 19 RBIs on 45 hits and has a .333 on-base percentage.
On Thursday, Molina visited the Hartford park on a day off work to indulge in a rare opportunity to watch his own son Yanuell play baseball. Yanuell, 6, plays third base for the O’Fallon Impact and faced off in a double-header against Team Illini coached by Wood River resident Benji Bomkamp.
“Today it’s all about my son, Yanuell,” Molina said. “It’s nice to have a day when I don’t wear the uniform and just have a chance to be dad to him. It’s fun to see them play ball and go back to where the love of the game starts. I don’t get to see him play as much as I like.”
The Southwest Illinois Baseball League (SWIBL) has eight teams in the 7U division. Team Illini is composed of children from Wood River and Bethalto and claims the Hartford field as their home territory.
“Tonight the kids got to play a great game on a great night,” Bomkamp said. “Not many kids can say they’ve played in front of Yadier Molina. Yadi was such a class act to take a photo with the boys after the game. What a memory for these kids; it’ll last a lifetime for them.”
Team Illini is in third place in the SWIBL 7U division with a record of 11-8-1 after splitting Thursday night’s double-header against the Impact. The Impact took the first game 8-6, but Illini rebounded and won the second game 9-5.
“In my opinion, at this age, it’s good they split the games,” Impact assistant coach Kevin Smith said. “At this point they’re learning those fundamentals and building their skills.”
Team Illini will have a short break before playing the O’Fallon Bombers at 6 p.m. at Hartford Memorial Park.
Arriving to the ball diamond, I noticed Molina had pulled into park right next to me. Knowing in advance he would be there, I brought a photo that I took of him during the April 30 Cardinals game against the Phillies (the Cardinals won 9-3). As Molina and his wife, Wanda, discussed their requests of privacy for their son and his intentions after the game, he offered to sign my photo. As the double-header progressed and a few untimely Facebook posts hit social media, the crowd at the ball park more than quadrupled in size. A few brave fans approached Molina for a photo or autograph and he was kind enough to oblige them, but it quickly became a popular idea to many to take their chances with the pro baseball player themselves. That is when I became public enemy No. 1. While I was by the visiting team’s dugout to take photos, just feet from Molina, I was asked to help move the crowd back as the head coach called in reinforcements for crowd control. Asking a hungry group of fans to move along was not my idea of fun.
When the game was over and after Molina paused to take a photo with the teams on the field, he walked over to his son’s bag to help him load his gear. My 10-year-old daughter and I happened to be standing in that vicinity. I introduced Mackenzie to Molina and she politely informed him she was hoping to say hi but was not going to bombard him like everyone else. She also told him, as she pointed at me, that her mother would have been angry at her if she bothered him because I taught her how to act around celebrities. Molina chuckled, shook my daughter’s hand and, smiling, thanked her for her consideration. He talked to us for a moment before gathering his family to leave, giving my daughter a valuable life lesson ... you get more bees with honey.