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Blue Jays alumni teach skills for a good cause

Honda Super Clinic helps raise funds for youngster's surgery

Blue Jays alumni teach skills for a good cause

WHITBY, Ontario -- Hundreds of kids were spread out across two fields at Iroquois Park in Whitby on Sunday, their bat bags taking up the entire length of the fence along the third-base line.

The sold-out clinic gave 400-plus eager participants a chance to refine their baseball skills with help from the best -- including Blue Jays alumni Roberto Alomar, Devon White, Lloyd Moseby, George Bell, Jesse Barfield, Tony Fernandez, Carlos Delgado and Duane Ward.

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But the guidance offered by the star-studded cast was only one small part of the Toronto Blue Jays Baseball Academy's event.

The one-day Honda Super Clinic served as a fundraiser for young Ben Sheppard, who will undergo selective dorsal rhizotomy surgery in St. Louis, thanks to the more than $68,000 raised through registration fees and matching contributions from Honda Canada and Whitby Honda.

"This is an exciting moment -- not only for Ben and his family, but for all of us," Alomar said. "We've all been fortunate in our lives to have our [bodies] at 100 percent. To see Ben, the way he's willing to play baseball, hopefully this [surgery] will make him walk and be able to play the game that he loves."

Ben was outside the confines of the park's fence. He held his bat firmly, ready to take a pitch from his father, Norm. His wheelchair sat empty behind him.

He took a big swing and fell down, but immediately stood up again and announced his next at-bat.

"Now batting, Ben Sheppard!" he said, in his best stadium-announcer voice.

He lined a single down the invisible infield grass and ran slowly, but safely, to "first."

That was the extent of what the eight-year-old can do for now. He's inhibited by left hemiplegic spastic cerebral palsy, which causes tightness and spasticity in his muscles.

The legions of kids in uniform and their parents in attendance were here to help him realize his eventual dream of running the bases at Rogers Centre. The money raised by the community, in conjunction with the help from Honda, helped reach the $100,000 goal needed for his procedure.

Convincing the notable alumni to donate their time on the field wasn't a challenge at all for Alomar, and the cause hit close to home for the former second baseman.

"Oh, it was real easy. It's easy to be supportive of a great cause like this. You don't see this that many times," Alomar said. "When I came here in 1991, one of my best friends was Spencer Miller. He has cerebral palsy, so I know what Ben's going through. I relate to him and I'm here for that."

Alomar befriended Miller when he was nine years old, and they still stay in touch today. After playing catch with Sheppard earlier in the day, the Hall of Famer hoped to be on the field whenever Ben gets his opportunity to run.

"The other day, we were reflecting back on our journey and we had just found out about the surgery for Ben," Norman Sheppard said to the crowd. "We were pretty excited and we thought this would be a great step for him.

"A couple of days later, he had another seizure -- he also has epilepsy -- and I remember thinking to myself, 'Can this kid just get a break?'"

Before three giant cheques were presented to his cause, Ben was in his wheelchair on the pitcher's mound. With his bat stowed behind him, he took the microphone and offered a simple "thank you" to the surrounding crowd.

The overwhelming applause sounded a lot like a good break for a great kid.

Steph Rogers is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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