Former Oakland Athletics pitcher Dave Stewart, left, gestures during a camp.

Spring training in Southern Oregon

Alan Decker saw the spark in his son's eye. He noticed the improvement and, more importantly, he saw the youngster's confidence climbing the charts.

After two years at the Dusty Baker International School of Baseball held near Sacramento, Calif., Aaron Decker had gone from a bit player in Little League to an all-star shortstop and pitcher by age 14.

"Then we thought, 'Why spend $500 to come down here when maybe we could bring those same coaches back to Southern Oregon?" Alan Decker says. "Then we could give all the Southern Oregon kids a chance to experience this."

Decker did just that, teaming with his wife Tami and Aaron, now 21, to start the Southern Oregon Spring Training baseball camp.

In its fifth year, the camp boasts former major league players like Dave Stewart, Bob Oliver and Rich Murray as instructors.

This year's camp runs May 2-4 at the Medford American Little League Fields. Normally for players of all ages, this year's event will be for ages 8 to 12. It is expected to expand next year to include all ages once U.S. Cellular Community Park is completed.

The camp runs from 4-7 p.m. the first day, then 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. the second day and 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. the final day. Players will go through drills and compete in games under the tutelage of the eight former pros and locals like Phoenix High coach Joe Hagler, South Medford coach Tom Britton and Crater coach Jay Campbell.

"We've had some great kids and phenomenal coaches come through here," says Alan Decker. "It's great because the kids learn a lot and they have a ball because of all the autographs."

Many of the ex-major leaguers are returning to the camp for the fourth or fifth time.

Stewart spent 19 seasons in the big leagues and was the 1989 World Series MVP with the Oakland Athletics. Murray, the brother of Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, played for the San Francisco Giants in the 1970s.

The other ex-pro players scheduled to be here are former Atlanta Braves player Roland Office, former Chicago Cubs player Bruce Carmichael, former Minnesota Twins competitor Hal Steinbeck and longtime major-league scout Gene Frechette.

"Even though they all played pro baseball," Alan Decker says, "that's really not their forte anymore. They are teachers now. When you see them in action on the field, you can see why the kids get so much out of an experience like this."

Oliver, who spent time with the Kansas City Royals and was just the third player ever to go 6-for-6 in a nine-inning game, will return for his fifth campaign at Southern Oregon Spring Training.

"We just try to teach them some basic fundamentals of baseball," Oliver says. "It gives them an opportunity to learn

how to get to the next level."

One former participant in the camp, Dustin Smith, is now a freshman on the Linfield University baseball team.

The Phoenix High graduate attended Southern Oregon Spring Training near the end of his prep career.

"I remember hearing a lot about the approach to the game," says Smith, who is batting .667 with three RBIs in three starts at third base this season for the Wildcats. "When you are young, you learn a lot about fundamentals. But when you get older, the game gets more fast-paced and there is more thinking involved. That's one of the things the pros talked about, the mental approach.

"It's always nice to talk to players from that level and get their input," Smith says.

"Personally, I just like being around them and watching them work with the kids," he adds. "I'm an observer, so I like to listen to what they have to say and maybe analyze the different viewpoints. It was a pretty interesting experience."

Other former area prep players who have attended the camp include Tyler Heil (South Medford), Allen Smith (South Medford), Cory Staniforth (Crater) and Josh Zelecki (Crater). All have gone on to play collegiate baseball.

Southern Oregon Spring Training had approximately 65 kids the first year and lost money on the venture. But each year the turnout has increased to around an average of 150 kids per camp.

"It takes about 70 to 80 kids for us to break even," says Decker. "It takes a pretty good amount of money to put this thing on and have these guys come here.

"But the money, we like to take what we've made and donate it to different things and spread it around to different baseball communities."

This year's turnout should be strong again, Decker says, with 40-plus participants from Yreka, Calif., alone already signed up.

"This year, with it being just younger kids, I'm not sure what we'll get," Decker said. "But so far the response has been pretty good."

Dusty Baker, a former major league player who is currently managing the Cincinnati Reds, has teamed with Frechette to run the Dusty Baker International Baseball Academy for the past 25 years.

Frechette, the academy's CEO, will make his fifth appearance at Southern Oregon Spring Training.

"We try to get kids prepared to go to the next level," says Frechette, 78. "Whether that's high school, Babe Ruth or junior college."

Frechette, who primarily works with pitchers at the camps, has been a scout for the Giants, Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, among other MLB teams.

"This is my 51st year associated with baseball," Frechette says. "I go up and do these camps because I love to work with kids and, hopefully, teach them something."

"At my age, I should be travelling around or something, but I can't get (baseball) out of my system," he adds with a laugh.

The instructors try to instill the notion that practice doesn't make you perfect, but perfect practice makes perfect, says Frechette.

"We show them the correct way to practice the fundamentals," he says. "There's no substitute for hard work, and we hope to show these kids the correct way to go about things."

Decker echoes those sentiments.

"The kids go through ways of proper throwing, fielding, hitting, defense ... a little bit of everything," he says. "They have pictures on the wall that show the kids each step of a proper swing.

"These kids will come here to learn some things, and they'll have a great time in the process."

Reach reporter Kevin Goff at 776-4483, or e-mail

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