BRADENTON -- During his many visits to Pirate City, Bill O'Connor began to realize something about Evan Chambers.
The guy could hit.
"He was blasting them on to the roof," said O'Connor, a Bradenton resident, recalling Chambers' performances during batting practice. "He was so powerful."
So when Chambers hit his first home run in a game at the Pittsburgh Pirates' sprawling facility in Bradenton, O'Connor went back behind the fence and retrieved the ball. Then he offered it back to Chambers, a Lakeland native and third-round draft pick of the Pirates in 2009.
"This is your first home run ball. You want it?" O'Connor told Chambers. "And he said. 'No, that's all right. You can keep it.'"
Chambers, an outfielder who appeared in 186 games with the Bradenton Marauders, the Pirates' Single-A af
filiate, died in his sleep over the weekend. He was 24.
No cause of death has been released.
O'Connor, a season-ticket holder since the Marauders' inaugural campaign in 2010, hopes to attend Chambers' funeral service Saturday afternoon in Lakeland. And he plans on giving the aforementioned home run ball, which Chambers signed with his No. 53 and the date -- 9-28-10 -- to Evan's parents.
"They were there all the time. ... Even when he was at Pirate City, his parents would sit there," O'Connor said. "Out of all the players' parents, his were there the most."
Fellow Marauders season-ticket holder Heidi Smith remembered chatting with the Chambers during games.
"I felt like I knew Evan because I knew his folks -- solid citizens, inquiring minds, devoted to family," she said.
And Evan was devoted to the fans, O'Connor said, unlike other players who would walk to and from the clubhouse without acknowledging the folks in the stands.
"I can tell you from my experience that anytime anyone asked for an autograph, he stopped, put his stuff down and signed," O'Connor said. "He was one of the players that did that. ... If somebody asked for anything, he would stop, even if his hands were full, and sign, especially for the kids. He would always sign for the kids. He was always polite, always friendly and nice to me and my son."
The Chambers family has ensured Evan will keep assisting children. In lieu of flowers, the family is requesting donations be made in Evan's name to the Foundation For Dreams and Dream Oaks Camp in Bradenton.
Dream Oaks Camp is a nonprofit providing camping programs for children with special needs and chronic or terminal illnesses. The camp is for youngsters ages 7 to 17. And Evan was one of a group of Marauders who made weekly visits with the campers, said Executive Director Susannah Cripe.
The camp has different themes each week, and Chambers and his teammates always played along, whether dressing up as superheroes or sitting on the floor and playing cards with campers.
"I just thought it was wonderful. A lot of kids are going to be able to come to camp because of him," Cripe said of the donations. "But we were very sad to hear of his passing. ... We're sending condolences to his family. He was so young."
Keith Haslett, a Bradenton resident and one of the Marauders' original season-ticket holders, has changed his Facebook profile photo to one of him and Chambers taken after a game. Haslett remembered how at the conclusion of each game, Chambers would make his way over to where his parents were sitting to shake his father's hand and kiss his mother on the cheek.
"He was definitely one of the most-liked players that wore a Marauders uniform," Haslett said. "He was a very talented ballplayer, but even a better man."
Drafted out of Hillsborough Community College in Tampa, Chambers spent 2011 with the Marauders and appeared in 31 more games with the team in 2012 before heading to the Pirates' Double-A team in Altoona, Pa. Injuries limited him to a four-game rehabilitation stint with the Pirates' Gulf Coast League team in Bradenton last season.
Chambers hit .227 in 395 professional games, stealing 73 bases -- including 20 with the '11 Marauders, who made the Florida State League playoffs -- and driving in 158 runs while scoring 214 more.
Evan Chambers, the player, will be remembered fondly by Marauders fans, but not nearly as much as Evan Chambers, the person.
"He was one of the most polite guys you can ever meet in baseball," O'Connor said.
"He was just one of those guys that was easy to be around," said Joel Godett, the Marauders' former radio announcer who is now the assistant director of broadcasting and multimedia at Ball State University, "and when you're the radio guy sometimes you don't always feel like you fit in. But you didn't get that around him.
"Chambo was just one of my favorite guys to talk to. Always approachable. Always affable. Always seemed like he was smiling."
John Lembo, prep sports reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7057.