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Before running onto the baseball field, children from across the diocese tied their cleats, stretched their muscles and made the Sign of the Cross during a one-day Catholic Baseball Camp at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax July 24.

Hosted by Catholic Athletes for Christ, the event provided kids between the ages of 8 and 16 with

an opportunity to deepen their faith while receiving quality sport instruction from current and former major league baseball players, including Tom Carroll, Jim Hannan and Fred Valentine.

Craig Stammen, a relief pitcher for the Washington Nationals, said he felt honored to be able to share the knowledge he gained over the course of his career and promote his Catholic faith through the event.

Throughout the day, participants attended Mass, listened to presentations on the Catholic faith and practiced pitching, base running and hitting under the guidance of Paul VI baseball coaches and members of the DC Padres, a baseball team of local priests and seminarians who compete against high school teams and promote vocations.

Newly ordained Father Kevin Dansereau enjoyed being able to combine his passion for baseball with opportunities for faith formation in the city where his love for baseball began.

"I grew up playing baseball in Fairfax, and I feel so blessed to be able to come back to help these kids practice my favorite sport and grow in their love for God," said Father Dansereau. "This camp combines both things that have been instrumental in my life. It's really amazing to be a part of it."

Ray McKenna, president of Catholic Athletes for Christ and a parishioner of Blessed Sacrament Church in Alexandria, said he hoped to show diocesan youths that faith and baseball "are opposite sides of the same coin" during the first Catholic baseball camp in the Washington area.

"If properly understood, faith and baseball have the capacity to improve the practice of one another," said McKenna. "By giving these kids the chance to practice their faith while practicing their sport, we are helping them develop in two major aspects of their lives, and hopefully their testimony will help others down the line. Today, they are seeing the real witness of MLB players who love and live their faith. Tomorrow, they could be doing the same."

McKenna said he hopes the event will eventually evolve into a three-day camp. Enthusiasm was high at the inaugural program.

"This camp is really fun, and it taught me a lot about baseball," said William Emerson, 9. "Playing with Craig Stammen was a once-in-a-lifetime experience."

When asked how he felt about a camp that combines faith and baseball, Emerson said, "Those two things go really well together. It's fun when you can mix them."

Warren Buckley, 10, explained why he felt the camp was a worthwhile experience.

"Camp is a great opportunity to meet new friends and to learn from famous players," he said. "It brings together people who have the same faith, and that makes everything better."

Vincenzo Fiorino, 7, agreed.

"It's a great time out here learning and having fun," said Fiorino. "It's fun to be going to church, especially on a day when I'm playing baseball."

While the camp did not promise to make youths into future major league players, Michael Hatfield, 14, demonstrated that it did succeed in teaching participants valuable lessons.

"I learned a lot today, but the most important things I learned will help me off of the field," he said. "You just have to have trust and faith in God and keep trying hard and everything will work out."

Willis can be reached at jwillis@catholicherald.com.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015