Jim Gaudet has always loved baseball.
As the second of four sons born to high school coaches in New Orleans, playing sports was a given.
Earning a living as a professional athlete was a dream.
The Atlanta Braves came calling for Gaudet when the catcher was a third-round draft pick out of high school, but he opted for a baseball scholarship to Tulane University instead.
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After his junior year in college, he signed with the Kansas City Royals. His professional baseball career was under way.
He played for the Royals organization for five years, including two seasons in the major leagues.
“It was the life I dreamed about since I was 2,” he said of his career, which included a stint with the Toronto Blue Jays.
“It was just enough for a taste, but I got to play Yankee Stadium.”
He always had a cheerleader in the stands.
His wife, Jami, actually cheered for Tulane, where they met.
They married in the off-season in 1977.
For the past 25 years of their 34-year marriage, the Gaudets have been sponsoring an annual baseball camp for boys and girls ages 6 to 12.
“She’s the guts, I’m the glory,” Jim Gaudet said. “She’s the backbone. She’s always 100 percent. She doesn’t know anything else.”
Friday will mark the end of the family tradition that began the summer after Gaudet opened his chiropractic center in Macon.
Over the years, they have shared the game they both love with about 13,000 children. It’s been free of charge every year except the first, when they charged $10 per camper to cover costs.
Since 1987, the camp has kept the same format: six stations where youngsters learn hitting, pitching, catching, infield, outfield and rules of the game.
“For him, it’s a vehicle for baseball. For me, it’s a vehicle for life in the community,” said Jami Gaudet, who has recruited support from foundations and organizations to enrich the experience.
“For me, it’s always more than baseball.”
When she worked for the Georgia Music Hall of Fame, she started securing free admission tickets for campers.
After the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame opened, she added a free ticket to that museum, too.
She has tapped into Robins Air Force Base, local law enforcement and public safety agencies to come meet the kids.
Friday, she has bomb-sniffing K-9 units coming from the U.S. Marshals Service in Atlanta and the Macon Police Department, where she has worked as public information officer for more than a year.
When her son Joby was about 3 years old, she introduced him to a couple of sheriff’s deputies at a Waffle House.
The men were so nice by offering the child a chance to play in their patrol car that she wrote a letter to the editor praising the officers.
She wants all children to have a positive first experience with law enforcement.
Coordinating all those first responders and running the camp is nearly a full-time job.
They both decided that 25 years was a monumental year to close the camp. It wasn’t an easy decision, though.
“I’ve been crying,” Jami Gaudet said Wednesday as she made final preparations at Luther Williams Field. “I cried when I walked in here.”
The Gaudets’ children, who now live in New York, and a number of other family members will be in town for Jim and Jami’s big day.
“I’m sure they can’t really sense how much they’ll miss it,” said their daughter Allison Gaudet Yarrow.
Jim Gaudet set out to create a special experience unlike any camp he had attended.
Professional, collegiate and high school athletes volunteer to show the children the ropes.
“You don’t have to be an all-star,” he said. “Twenty-five to 30 percent of the kids don’t even have gloves.”
His wife worked on that a couple of years ago and secured a grant to provide mitts for those without.
“They get to have fun and run around that beautiful museum that we call Luther Williams Field, and some of them have made it to the majors,” Jim Gaudet said.
When Gaudet tore his ACL and left baseball, he finished college and went to chiropractic school.
With his role in sports medicine, he’s seen how much the game has changed.
The stakes are higher and youngsters with promise are playing year-round and are at greater risk for injury.
“Now, everybody trash talks and kicks you when you’re down,” he said.
“Back then, there was none of that. I was very humble about it.”
Humility is a trait he inherited from his mother.
“Mom always said: ‘The heart that gives gathers,’ ” he said. “You give for the sake of giving.”
The camp was a way for Gaudet to give back the blessings God had given him through the game of baseball, he said.
The Gaudets often traveled through Georgia during his baseball career as they moved 18 times in six years.
After he finished chiropractic school in Atlanta, the family settled in Macon after they caught a clip of the Cherry Blossom Festival on television.
For his wife, who grew up in a small town in upstate New York, the move was an opportunity to put down roots, raise a family and give back.
The message he hopes children take away is that anyone can be the hero of a game.
“They can feel positive about themselves whether they go on to play baseball or not,” Jim Gaudet said.
He still gets requests for autographs on the one rookie card he shared with two other Royals.
The first pitcher he faced in the majors? Hard-throwing right-hander Nolan Ryan, who was later elected to the Hall of Fame.
His only hit in the majors was off Goose Gossage, a dominating closer who also was elected to the hall.
But he takes just as much pride when he runs into former campers who recognize him from one of his camp T-shirts.
In the end, he realizes it’s the camp where he’s had the greatest impact on a generation of young players.
“When a 6-year-old kid comes up to you and says: ‘This is the best day of my life,’ that’s the reward.”
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To contact writer Liz Fabian, call 744-4303.