New initiative will encourage participation in all forms of baseball among all ages, with a special focus on youth
By Mark Newman
NEW YORK -- The kids screamed when they saw Giancarlo Stanton show up. One of the boys with the new white "Play Ball" T-shirts looked up with wide eyes and graciously accepted what the Marlins superstar was handing him: A Wilson outfielder glove with "Giancarlo" stitched on the outside in cursive.
It was a simple understood gesture to play ball. Then Stanton threw Wiffle ball pitches to the kids on a field next to Yankee Stadium on Thursday -- as friends had done for him nearly every day as a boy not so long ago in California. Stanton, Major League Baseball's leader with 24 home runs and 62 RBIs, is in fourth place in the latest National League outfield All-Star voting update, but here was a plainly visible sign of just what he means to the sport in 2015.
"When you're in another city that's not your home team, it's awesome that the kids recognize you and acknowledge you. It's great to give back to them," Stanton said. "To get them to see that we're human beings, too, we're not so far away. You don't only see us on the field, and we can relate to them a little bit in this way, it's great. It's good for their confidence."
Stanton was at Macombs Dam Park's Heritage Field on the footprint of the old Yankee Stadium to help MLB and USA Baseball celebrate the launch of the "Play Ball" initiative. This new undertaking is being introduced in a committed effort to spark widespread participation in all forms of baseball activities among all age groups, especially youth.
Joining Commissioner Rob Manfred -- in addition to Stanton -- were Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and representatives from the Yankees (Alex Rodriguez, Dellin Betances and Chris Young) and Marlins (Dee Gordon). Also in attendance were MLB Network and FOX analyst Harold Reynolds (who recruited the big leaguers) and about 100 youth players from area Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) and Little League clubs.
"The purpose of the initiative is just to remind people that you can engage with baseball without having nine guys on each team, uniforms and umpires," Manfred said. "There are lots of small games that are ways to play baseball that can be really fun for kids and can really help them develop skills. The kids seemed to have a great day today. You see the excitement that's generated when Major League players show up, and it creates a day that they'll remember the rest of their lives."
Manfred told the assembled kids that he got his start playing for the "Mesa 1" team in the 6-7-year-old age division in the town of Rome in upstate New York. He told them how he and his friends would play the old rundown game of "hotbox," home run derby and any other impromptu pickup games that did not require much organization. The message: Just get kids interested in the bare basics.
"What we hope to get is through events like this, organic activity where kids actually play more in these smaller games," Manfred said. "It's going to be a difficult thing for us to measure, but we're going to work really hard at it, because we are really committed to the initiative."
This initiative highlights the many ways baseball can be played, including outside of traditionally organized baseball leagues and tournaments, ranging from playing catch, stickball and Wiffle ball to participating in skills competitions like "Pitch, Hit & Run." PlayBall.org serves as its online home, featuring coaching tips, parent resources and health and safety info. It's also a resource to find out how to gets kids involved in Play Ball activities and get links to youth-related news and events, plus searchable maps for local community leagues.
Stanton flashed a big smile in recalling those Wiffle ball days.
"I played some Wiffle ball, yeah, sure did," he said. "That's what it's about -- when you can't be on your Little League team, you go play in three more games all day and just have a blast."
Was he a power hitter then?
"Tried to," he said. "Big leg kick, try to hit it as far as you can."
MLB also launched MLB.com/playball as the social media destination to share experiences during Play Ball activities.
"The launch of Play Ball is a landmark occasion for our sport," said executive director and CEO of USA Baseball Paul Seiler. "With the support of Major League Baseball, we are thrilled to take a more active role in the proliferation of our game and offer innovative resources to our national member organizations and their constituents. While the launch of Play Ball is the culmination of a lot of hard work, today represents the beginning of our partnership with MLB to grow the game at the grassroots level."
MLB and USA Baseball are launching the Play Ball Mobile Coaching App, a free tool for coaches at every level that is currently available for download via Google Play and will be coming soon to the Apple App Store. Coaches can access the app as guests, but logging on with Play Ball credentials allows users to create customized practice plans, organize team data, utilize Pitch Smart recommendations and more.
The Play Ball Drills Library outlines information for hundreds of drills, along with important information such as difficulty level, recommended duration, diagrams and videos for each exercise.
One of the main features of PlayBall.org is "Baseball Near You," a database of baseball-playing opportunities, searchable by zip code. It includes more than 10,000 leagues across the U.S. and also provides contact information for player registration. "Baseball Near You" was made possible through the support of American Legion, Dixie Boys and Majors, Little League Baseball and Softball, RBI and the MLB Urban Youth Academy network.
The promotion of Play Ball includes the launch of an advertising campaign, which has begun running with spots on MLB Network, FOX, FOX Sports 1, ESPN and MLB.com. Spots also will air on TBS game broadcasts beginning in July.
"I feel like it's my obligation to do something like this, being able to give back and be a motivating factor to these kids," Dawson said. "They already love the game. But when they see stars like Alex Rodriguez and Giancarlo Stanton, that only fuels their motivation. That's what makes it worth the while."
MLB is partnering with its clubs and various organizations to help grow the initiative's awareness and accessibility through special events and promotional opportunities. USA Baseball, its national member organizations, and Boys & Girls Clubs of America, will help promote Play Ball across their membership bases and within their communities.
Since April, MLB and Little League Baseball and Softball have joined with ESPN for an initiative to promote youth baseball by bringing kids from local Little Leagues to MLB ballparks for ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball," allowing them to meet Major Leaguers and appear on air with ESPN broadcasters. This initiative will continue in support of Play Ball's launch.
Special youth events that showcase the different ways to play the game will be an important aspect of Play Ball. During All-Star Week in July, MLB, the Reds and Chevrolet are joining together to attempt to set the Guinness World Records title for the MLB Largest Game of Catch presented by Chevrolet.