WALLA WALLA - The 2012 edition of the Mariners Caravan came rolling into Walla Walla Thursday afternoon, bearing prizes and players for a short question-and-answer session and autograph signing at Whitman's Sherwood Center.
The Caravan is organized by the Mariners' Community Programs department.
About 75 Walla Wallans attended the event. Fans received tickets at the entrance for chances to win prizes, including a Mariners hat and a Mariners jacket.
For 10-year-old Matt McKenzie, it was his third year in a row attending the Mariners Caravan. He had signatures from Doug Fister, Garrett Olson, Luke French, Shawn Kelly, Dave Sims and Mike Blowers on a baseball. He plans on attending Mariners Caravans until the ball is completely filled up.
Last year he was off by one ticket from winning the Mariners jacket. The winner? His 8-year-old brother Justin, although there hasn't been much wrangling over who gets to wear the jacket - it's too large for both of them.
Community Programs Manager Sean Grindley said the program was part of a series of events designed to reach out to Mariners fans and youth who may not be fortunate enough to attend Mariners games in person and to provide inspiration for young Mariner fans as part of the D.R.E.A.M. Team assembly program, whose goal is to encourage youth to stay drug free, respect themselves and others, get a good education through reading, attitude and motivation.
The Caravan has already made stops in Spokane and Yakima, among other cities, and is scheduled to visit more than 25 cities in the Pacific Northwest.
This week, the bus bore Mariner pitchers Blake Beavan and Tom Wilhelmsen, and former Mariner catcher, and current broadcaster, Dave Valle. And, of course, the Mariners Moose.
For Beavan, a 22-year-old native of Irving, Texas, it was his first time being east of the Cascades in Washington.
"This is all new for me," Beavan said. "I like it. I like the country, it's farming out here and the drives have been really nice and there's been pretty views, so it's been pretty sweet."
Beavan made his Mariners debut July 3 when the Mariners hosted the San Diego Padres, going seven innings and giving up just one run.
The 6-foot-7 right-hander probably didn't think about practicing his signature before hitting the major leagues.
"I think you kind of get used to it (lots of autographs) after a while," Beavan said. "I remember when I first got drafted, my hand felt like it just cramped up and didn't want to write after about a hundred signatures. I haven't been doing it for a long time, but I've been doing it (pro baseball) for about four years now so I'm used to signing my name now to where it takes a while for it to start getting a little tired."
The top three questions Beavan has faced?
"Prince, Pujols and, ‘Are we (Mariners) going to win?'" Beavan said.
Prince Fielder, most recently of the Milwaukee Brewers and a free agent, is the subject of many rumors indicating he may be coming to Seattle; Albert Pujols, a slugger fresh off leading the St. Louis Cardinals to the World Series title, was brought to AL West division rival Los Angeles Angels in one of the largest deals in baseball history; and the Mariners are coming off of what has been a string of disappointing seasons, going 67-94 last season.
Wilhelmsen believes the Mariners are ready to turn a corner this season.
"Every team is going to struggle at some point, some longer than others," Wilhelmsen said. "We'll get our groove back, we're a young team. We've got a lot to learn, and that's kind of a good thing. It's just wide open for us, the sky is the limit. Once all of us rookies get all of our jitters out of the way, it's going to be wide open for us.
"When we flew into Seattle, there was about seven other guys working out and getting ready," Wilhelmsen said, "so it's good to see them, and I'm sure they all feel like I do, we want to get back out there and show what we can do and win some games."
Wilhelmsen is in his second stint in pro baseball, after taking 2005-09 off. He bounced between AA Jackson in Tennessee and the Mariners last season, and posted a 3.31 ERA through 32 innings in the bigs.
"I'm just trying to tell these kids to have fun," Wilhelmsen said. "Not everyone wants to be a ball player, not everyone wants to be a doctor, most of these kids probably don't even know what they want to be, and that's totally cool. I thought I did know what I wanted to do, and then I didn't want to do it, so where do I go from there?
"I was kind of lost for a while," he said. "So you do some soul-searching, you figure out what you want to do with your life and then you just jump in with both feet - go after it and don't look back."
Mariners broadcaster Dave Valle had a 13-year-long career in the majors as a catcher. Although he was never known for being a power hitter, batting .237 for his career, he was an excellent fielder with a .992 fielding percentage.
The highlight of his career came 1993. As the Mariners' starting catcher, Valle averaged .258 in the batters' box with 13 home runs and 63 RBIs and had a .995 fielding percentage, second best in the league that year.
Currently, he calls Mariners games for the Mariner radio network.
Valle said what he talks about when on the Mariners Caravan depends on what people ask about, but he enjoys talking about the upcoming Mariners season.
"Having started back in 1978, I've seen a lot of things and played with some great players and I see a great batch of young guys coming up," he said. "It's kind of more the excitement about the current team and what their hopes are for 2012."
The Mariners wrap up this week's bus tour with a stop in the Tri-Cities today, touring the Kadlec Medical Center and doing another autograph session at Columbia Basin College in Pasco.
Wilhelmsen said childrens' favorite Mariners to ask questions of on the Caravan was the Mariners Moose - but he didn't have much to say.