It was big for the kids that turned out to learn from the local standout they saw play for the Atlanta Braves last season.
It was big for the city of Jacksonville and Jacksonville State University to see one of their own back on a home diamond, outfitted in gray Braves road game pants and a Braves warm-up top and cap.
It was big to see Todd Cunningham on Rudy Abbott Field, but it was nothing unusual for those most closely tied to his career.
“He never stops working,” JSU coach Jim Case said from the visiting dugout before Sunday’s clinic. “He’s been back out here this fall and this winter, also working as an infielder, and to try to give himself a little bit more of a chance.”
Yes, one of the most versatile prospects in the Braves’ organization is trying to add to his versatility and up his chances to get back up with the parent team and stick.
Cunningham, an outfielder who played eight games with the Braves while Reed Johnson was injured in 2013, has worked this offseason to add second base to his repertoire. In January, he spent time in Tampa, Fla., working with former Major League manager Davey Johnson, a three-time Gold Glove winner at second base.
That doesn’t mean a move to second base is imminent, but it can’t hurt for a switch hitter already known for versatility to add more.
Cunningham starred at shortstop for Jacksonville High then outfield during his first two seasons at JSU. He moved to shortstop his junior season at JSU then was drafted in the second round (53rd overall) as a third baseman.
He has played mostly outfield in the Braves’ organization, which has Jason Heyward, the Upton brothers and others on the major-league level. But who knows what avenues might open for a versatile player like Cunningham, who was the Braves’ organizational player of the year in 2012?
Veteran Dan Uggla projects as the Braves’ starting second baseman but has struggled offensively, batting .185 over his past 236 games. He underwent LASIK surgery in August to fix blurred vision but got just 41 plate appearances before the Braves benched him in favor of Elliott Johnson. Uggla was left off the National League Division Series roster.
Asked whether his work at second base was an organizational idea or a matter of him adding versatility, Cunningham said it was “a little bit of both.”
“It can’t hurt the organization, if it has more options,” Cunningham said. “It also can’t hurt me, if I have more options. It kind of works both ways.
“I don’t expect to go into spring training as a second baseman, but it’s something that could be evaluated, and, if there’s ever a need, then it could be used.”
Cunningham began taking ground balls with JSU assistant coach Mike Murphree before the New Year. In early January, he spent eight days in Tampa, working with Davey Johnson.
Cunningham described his time with Davey Johnson as “a crash course” and Johnson as “pretty old school.”
“He’s very fundamental,” Cunningham said. “You watch a lot of it now, how the infield is flashy and smooth, he doesn’t necessarily care about that. He’s catch the ball, see yourself pull it out of your glove and get it where you need to get it.”
Cunningham said he expects to start spring practice in the outfield, where he has seen time at all three positions.
“Wherever they need me,” he said. “I’ve kind of played that role where I can bounce around. I seem to always kind of settle back into center.
“Hopefully, I can stay in the middle of the field, but I’ve had experience at all three positions.”
Cunningham and former JSU/current Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Donovan Hand were the lead speakers at Sunday’s free clinic for kids 6-14. Also present were former Gamecock and Cherokee County standout Coty Blanchard, now in the Tampa Bay Devil Rays’ farm system, former Jacksonville High star Shed Long, now in the Cincinnati Reds’ organization, and ex-Gamecock and former Los Angeles Dodger minor leaguer Andrew Edge.
“How often do kids in our area get an opportunity to listen, not only to college baseball players, but to guys who played in the big leagues this past season?” former JSU coach Rudy Abbott said. “And, to put a feather in the cap of our local baseball program, they both played here for Jim Case.
“We have a lot to be proud of. We’re just so proud to have them back.”
Cunningham has played in the Braves’ organization since 2010, batting .276 with 10 home runs and 133 RBIs in 392 minor league games. He was a midseason and postseason all-star with the Double-A Mississippi Braves in 2012.
He spent most of 2013 with Triple-A Gwinnett but enjoyed an eight-game call-up to the parent Braves, starting July 30. He got his first major-league hit, a single, in his first major-league at bat, against Colorado on July 30.
He went 2-for-8 (.250) with Atlanta.
“It’s one of those things you wish everyone had a chance to experience,” Cunningham said. “It’s very unique, very special. It’s a different perspective of how things work.
“It was really cool, obviously, but it was a very special moment, especially having my mom in the stands. She got to be a part of it and all of the support I got from the community.”
He hopes to experience a lot more of it.
“He’s not satisfied,” Case said. “He wants to get better and better. He works hard. He’s out here, no matter the weather or what’s going on. That’s just the way he is.
“That’s not something that was instilled in him here. I think he’s always been that way. He’s a class guy that works hard at everything he does to try to be the best.”
Sports columnist Joe Medley: 256-235-3576, firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @jmedley_star.