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Thursday, Jan. 20, 2011 05:16 am

Kids get up close with Cubs

Chicago Cubs Caravan spotlights reading in Springfield

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Infielder Blake DeWitt and pitcher Justin Berg look on as teammate Randy Wells reads to McClernand Elementary School kids Jan. 13.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

Second grader Taylor Kennedy sits cross-legged in the front row of her classmates as Chicago Cubs second baseman Blake DeWitt reads about Abraham Lincoln’s hat. Leaning forward in his chair, a pair of camouflaged Oakley sunglasses slip from his shirt collar  and into the 8-year-old girl’s lap. As he keeps reading, she quickly grabs them, and her face beams as she hands the glasses back to the 2004 first round draft pick.

“It’s really cool to have real Cubs here,” she says after the players have finished reading to her. She says she’s been wanting to play baseball.

 “It’s really a good chance for me to just get to know some baseball players,” she says.

Approximately 100 second and third graders from McClernand Elementary School, and a handful of contest winners from radio station WFMB, got to do just that Jan. 13, when the “Cubs Spotlight on Reading” program visited Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library in Springfield.

Students and teachers welcomed the players and personnel with an enthusiastic rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ball Game,” before players divided up into groups to read about Abraham Lincoln.

Cubs play-by-play announcer Pat Hughes encouraged second and third graders that “All players play ball. They also know the importance of reading.”

 The program was formed to boost literacy levels and reward students for reading. The Cubs would go to six cities over two days, visiting six elementary schools, Chicago’s Northwestern Hospital, as well as the USO of Illinois at the Great Lakes Naval Academy.

Students and families mingled with Hughes, pitching coach Mark Riggins, infielder Blake DeWitt, catcher Koyie Hill and pitchers Justin Berg and Randy Wells among others.

DeWitt says when kids see him and his teammates, a lot of them may realize that their goals are attainable in life, regardless of what they want to do when they grow up.

“It’s big that the kids continue with education, whether that be a high school education, college education, whatever it be,” he says.

 “Spending time with kids is just the most rewarding thing we can do, I mean we have to give back,” says Jay Jackson, a minor league pitching prospect, who along with catcher Koyie Hill, read to kids about why Abraham Lincoln grew his beard.

 McClernand Elementary School principal Jennifer Gill says this is just one way to encourage reading habits in young students.

“We have a district-wide goal to increase independent reading time that students have at home and in the classroom,” she says. “So we’re so excited to have that opportunity for the students to have another adult or role model talk to them about the importance of reading.”

Rochester resident Larry McDevitt admits he came to the event with his 12-year-old son, Mitchell McDevitt, a radio contest winner, in hopes of meeting players like Hill. He appreciates the quality time that the Cubs’ players spent reading with students.

“They actually get up close and personal with them [the players]. I know my son’s real excited about hearing them…and what they have to say,” he says.

Of course the Cubs couldn’t get away from their rivalry with the St. Louis Cardinals, even from some of their littler fans like Ethan Edwards.

“I like the Cardinals,” Edwards says. “My grandpa loves them a lot and they rock,” he says.

After reading time with the kids, players and coaches explored exhibits at the Lincoln Presidential Museum with students and their teachers, and signed autographs.

Seven-year-old Breanna Coomer had several autographs from the players, but she was more excited to meet the life-sized former President of the United States, Abraham Lincoln, in the museum rotunda. “Because I’m his fan,” she says.

Contact Holly Dillemuth at hdillemuth@illinoistimes.com.

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