ENGLEWOOD — Tampa Bay Rays pitcher Jeff Niemann’s message was simple when he visited a Little League team Saturday — “Have fun!”
“It was exciting,” said Bryce Gilbert, 8, who plays second base for Team Billy Kimberlin Roofing. “I was amazed how tall he was.”
Niemann stands 6 feet, 9 inches tall.
“I told them, ‘Listen to your coaches,’” Niemann said. “‘Listen to your dad. Learn the game and don’t put too much pressure on yourself.’”
Bryce is the son of Capt. Todd Gilbert, who runs First Class Charter Fishing in Placida and Boca Grande. Todd did not believe it at first when Niemann called to inquire about taking his family fishing for his 30th birthday.
“I thought it was one of my friends putting me on,” Todd said. “He saw my billboard at the Fishery Restaurant.”
Todd told Niemann about his two sons who both play baseball.
“I can’t say enough about (Niemann),” Todd said. “He and his family are really nice. He was asking me questions about fishing. He’s really open and down to earth. To do what he did for the kids was real special.”
To Niemann, the visit to the Englewood Little League was a throwback to “grassroots baseball” — it was about having fun and learning the game.
“We were free and we kind of thought it would be a good thing just to come down and talk to the kids,” Niemann said.
Niemann says he played all the positions in Little League except catcher.
“It’s kids having a great time, balls going everywhere,” he said. “Guys are running to third base instead of first. It’s pretty humorous. It’s good to see it like that. It’s good to see baseball in its purest form.”
Niemann had this advice for coaches: “(At the Little League level) you get the kid in the right position and make sure they understand what they’re supposed to do,” he said. “They do it or not, that’s one thing, but (they should) know what they’re supposed to be doing.”
Niemann said kids are built bigger, faster and stronger than when he played Little League and he knows about the strain some go through to excel.
“I hate to see kids throw curve balls from a pitcher’s standpoint,” he said. “I really don’t like to see that. You can hurt your arm. These days, kids younger and younger are having arm surgeries. We have guys proven at the major league level who can not only win, but become extremely successful with a fastball and change up. Those are the two most fundamental pitches in baseball: control your fastball and throw your change up behind your fastball. That’s giving any kid the best foundation and the best chance to succeed later on.”
Niemann said he’ll probably return to Englewood.
“You can actually see your hand in the water compared to the chocolate-milk water I saw at the beaches in Galveston, Texas, near Houston where I grew up,” he said. “It was amazing to see how clean everything is in the water (in Englewood). Natural stuff and mangroves. I dig it.”
It’s something Todd said he will never forget. “It was an experience for them with the smiles he put on their faces,” he said. “Money can’t buy that.”