SAN FRANCISCO -- Shortly after Sacramento mayor Kevin Johnson presented the President's Report to the United States Conference of Mayors in a hotel ballroom Saturday morning, he stood at another podium alongside the World Series trophy and Commissioner Rob Manfred to announce an alliance between Major League Baseball and city leaders from across the country.
It was time to "Play Ball," and Johnson -- the former NBA star and mayor of his hometown since 2008 -- was throwing his organization's full weight behind the initiative announced this week to strengthen the connection between baseball and American communities, especially urban and underserved areas.
In the association of more than 1,000 mayors of cities of 30,000 or more, Manfred and MLB now have some heavy hitters supporting the new initiative, including Johnson and Baltimore mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake, who also participated in the announcement.
"Mayors have this unbelievable platform to convene people and bring people together and take advantage of our bully pulpit," Johnson said. "When we as mayors say this 'Play Ball' initiative is good for our communities and our children, especially underserved communities where we're trying to create an environment that's positive and building healthy lifestyles, people are going to listen, and that's a very powerful place for us to be."
Added Rawlings-Blake: "We're taking this program where the kids are, so it's not restricted to the Y or the Boys' and Girls' Club. As mayors, we partner with all of those organizations that serve our young people."
And now the USCM is partnering with Major League Baseball, with the goal of getting as many cities as possible to participate in "Play Ball" events in their cities this August. With Manfred and his partners, including former Trenton, N.J., mayor Doug Palmer, working with the gathered mayors at the event to increase awareness and participation in those upcoming events, the flag of the new program is being planted in every state.
Baseball already has implemented programs such as the Urban Youth Academy, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities and the Baseball Tomorrow Fund to help increase participation particularly of African-American youth, having seen a decline in African-American Major Leaguers from 19 percent in 1986 to less than 8 percent now. As Manfred noted, 25 percent of the first-round picks in the MLB Draft earlier this month are African-American, but there's more work to do in order to re-engage communities throughout the country in the grand old game.
"The idea of this initiative is not only to give kids an opportunity to play, but to take advantage of baseball's unique ability to bring communities together," Manfred said at the Saturday news conference. "Our early efforts with these programs have shown us that not only do the kids have a great time but it provides a unique opportunity for the community to work on a project that's in everyone's interest."
Manfred spent much of Saturday morning in talks with various mayors from around the country to discuss the "Play Ball" initiative and promote the idea of holding events in August. The events will focus not only on competition but on baseball activities such as playing catch or running bases, strengthening bonds between communities and baseball.
Manfred knows that he has the support of the USCM's leadership in Johnson and Rawlings-Blake, the vice president of the organization. Rawlings-Blake already held a "Play Ball"-style event in West Baltimore at James Mosher Little League, one of the nation's oldest predominately African-American leagues. She threw out a first pitch that drew a positive review from Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and the kids got to interact with Orioles star Adam Jones, but mostly Rawlings-Blake enjoyed seeing the community get together for a fun purpose, reminding her of the proverb that it takes a village to raise a child.
"When I was at James Mosher and saw so many kids from all over Baltimore and their parents and the business leaders that were supporting them, I said, 'This is what that village looks like.' That's what baseball is. It's a unifier," Rawlings-Blake said.
Johnson, who shares Sacramento roots with such African-American ballplayers as Dusty Baker and Jerry Manuel, pointed to the rich history of African-Americans in baseball and said it's "unacceptable" that there aren't adequate opportunities for African-American youth to enjoy baseball and softball.
With the "Play Ball" initiative heading into a full summer of activity, there will be plenty of those opportunities for kids all over the country to connect with the National Pastime.
"There's a new Willie Mays out there, just waiting to grab a bat and a glove and do his or her thing," Johnson said.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. You can follow him on Twitter @JohnSchlegelMLB. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.