EVENSVILLE, Tenn. -- Twenty-nine days from today, Cory Gearrin will join the rest of the Atlanta Braves' pitchers and catchers near Orlando, Fla., for the official start of spring training.
But before he could return to the Braves bullpen, the 25-year-old Gearrin had to help out Rhea County High School's baseball and softball programs with a fundraiser Friday night.
"It's a combination of two things, really," the 2004 RCHS graduate said a few minutes before he addressed a crowd of more than 300 inside the school's cafeteria. "One, I always want to do anything I can to help out my high school. Two, I just want the people of this community to know how much they mean to me."
To back up his words with deeds, Gearrin brought several boxes of Braves gear -- bats, hats, jerseys, jackets and gloves -- to be used for a silent auction. Added to donations of gift certificates and baked goods -- one woman's carrot cake reportedly has brought $100 or more in past fundraisers -- the school figured to raise several thousand dollars for a new indoor practice facility for the baseball and softball programs.
"This started out as a little chili supper," said Golden Eagles baseball coach Mike Kinney. "When Cory got involved, it got a whole lot bigger than that."
It got so big that Kinney brought in former Rhea County and University of Tennessee football great Andy Kelly to emcee the event.
"I played a little center field here long before Cory was here," said the 43-year-old Kelly. "I was just killing grass out there most of the time. But I started hearing about Cory years ago. I watched him climb the ladder [to the major leagues]. He's become a great ambassador both for the Braves and Rhea County."
Gearrin first reached the top of the ladder last April 22. Almost immediately, he retired the side to save an Atlanta road win at San Diego. A few nights after that he entered an extra-inning home game against the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals and quickly retired Albert Pujols, Matt Holliday and Lance Berkman, arguably the most feared 3, 4 and 5 hitters in the game.
But after that he was on and off the roster, eventually appearing in 18 big-league games, surrendering 16 hits and striking out 25. He is listed on the Braves' active roster for the start of spring training.
"I trained out in Arizona before Christmas," Gearrin said. "But I've gotten an apartment in Atlanta and I try to train at [Turner Field] whenever it's open. If the doors are open, I want to be there."
Judging by what the Braves have said and done since the season ended, Gearrin's right arm is being counted on to boost the bullpen this spring and summer.
"I talked to the organization at the end of the year," he said. "They told me just to continue to be consistent doing what I do. I'm working hard on my changeup and my running game, and right now they seem to feel good about my progress."
One concrete example of that: Gearrin was not encouraged to participate in winter ball, which is often suggested for players who still need to prove their worth.
"I just want to keep developing the art of the game," he said. "Just doing the little things well."
A quick story: When Kinney -- also a Rhea graduate -- came back to his alma mater to coach in 2003, he thought he was hearing gunshots inside the school's gym one morning at 6. Turns out it was Gearrin throwing baseball bullets against the gym wall.
"So Cory's always had that work ethic," the coach said.
A work ethic and a help ethic. More than two hours before he spoke, Gearrin was signing autographs for anyone who asked, beginning with 14-year-old Emily Barnett, a freshman infielder on Rhea's softball team.
"This is so exciting," said Barnett, a Spring City resident who got her picture made with Gearrin while her little brother Zachary received an autographed baseball. "To have a famous baseball player who played here. I'm going to frame my picture."
As he spoke to the crowd, Gearrin joked about he and his high school buddies have kept up a running dialogue about who the top 10 athletes in Rhea County history are and how his friends have never allowed him to become part of that list.
"They always say, 'You're not in the trophy case, you weren't even all-state, so there's no way you can make it,'" Gearrin smiled.
Then he pointed to a framed No. 53 Braves jersey (Gearrin's number) that the school intends to add to its trophy case, smiled and said, "If I can't make the list now, I'll never get there."
Here's a better idea: When the Golden Eagles build their baseball/softball workout building, name it the Cory Gearrin Practice Facility. Just make sure it's open each day by 6 a.m.