JACKSONVILLE — Would you believe that Todd Cunningham cried the first time he got out at kickball?
That’s what he told about 400 children at a free baseball clinic put on by retired Jacksonville State coaching great Rudy Abbott and JSU’s baseball team Sunday.
The JSU and Jacksonville High alum is working his way up the Atlanta Braves organization, and he told the story while making a point about baseball teaching lessons on how to handle failure.
“If you fail seven times out of 10, you’re in the Hall of Fame,” he said.
Baseball also teaches patience, and the sense is that Cunningham’s patience is close to paying off in the Braves’ organization.
The team’s spate of offseason moves has shortened the line in the outfield. Cunningham was already near or at the top of the waiting list for advancement to the parent team.
The 2012 organizational player of the year, who had a taste of the big leagues during a brief call-up in 2013, knows opportunity is at hand.
“It’s definitely nice that there’s at least an opportunity,” Cunningham said before his appearance at Sunday’s clinic. “Nothing is ever guaranteed, but you at least get a chance to compete for a spot. That’s all you can really ask for.”
The Braves have spent more than two decades as a divisional contender but set out to restock their farm system this offseason. Team president John Hart’s moves suggest a willingness to risk a lean year or two while building a contender.
Outfielders Jason Heyward and Justin Upton are gone. So is Evan Gattis.
Free agent Nick Markakis, who will replace Heyward, had neck surgery since signing. He’s expected to recover by the start of the season but remains a question mark.
The Braves also signed 34-year-old free agent Jonny Gomes to a one-year deal with a vesting option for a second year. The projected outfield has Markakis in right field, B.J. Upton in center and Gomes platooning with Zoilo Almonte in left.
But therein lies a competitive opportunity for Cunningham, who has spent most of the past two seasons with Triple-A Gwinnett. He’s competing to be the floating reserve or fourth outfielder.
“It’s kind of the fourth outfield spot now,” Cunningham said. “They just signed Gomes, and I think they’re wanting him to be the left fielder. If everyone else handles everything else, then the outfield should be set.
“But there’s a fourth outfield spot that guys are really competing for.”
The fourth guy would play when other outfielders need a day off. He also could be a late-game defensive replacement.
“That fourth outfield spot is flexible,” Cunningham said. “You kind of handle multiple positions to give guys a breather.”
The Braves drafted Cunningham in the second round (53rd overall) in 2008. He hit .287 in 2014, his second full year in Triple-A. He received an eight-game call-up to the parent team in July of 2013 and went 2-for-8, getting his first major-league hit in his first at bat.
Considering that the aging Gomes has a one-year deal, productive playing time for Cunningham this season could lead to a starting role in 2015.
“All the information he’s being given now is it’s a great opportunity for him,” said JSU coach Jim Case, Cunningham’s college coach. “He’s certainly excited about it and working extremely hard.”
Case said Cunningham has worked out with JSU’s team daily since the Gamecocks began workouts in January.
“He took a couple of days and was on the Braves’ caravan,” Case said. “For the most part, he’s been here every day working hard. …
“Definitely, his body is a little bit thicker, maybe a little bit more mature. The ball really seems to be jumping off his bat, but it has in the past. Part of that is just the maturity and his body getting a little older and filling out.”
Braves pitchers and catchers report Feb. 20, and the full squad reports Feb. 25.
Sunday, Cunningham was the keynote speaker at Abbott’s clinic. He also gave batting tips in JSU’s cage, including how to lift the back-foot heel and “squish the bug” with the toes.
“It’s really cool, because I can remember when I was a kid,” he said. “I used to come to Rudy Abbott’s camps, and I thought it was so cool to see the kids and be around them and listen to them.
“It’s definitely special to be on the flip side.”