Commissioner visits Boys & Girls Club in Kansas City
By Mark Newman
KANSAS CITY -- Presiding over his first World Series as Commissioner, Rob Manfred walked into a Boys & Girls Club gymnasium on Tuesday afternoon before Game 1 of the Fall Classic (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX, 8 p.m. game time), looked out at the eager faces of many kids sitting before him wearing white "Play Ball" T-shirts, and started off the proceedings by telling them this was "absolutely the best part of my job."
"We want kids like you out there playing baseball," Manfred told them. "It doesn't have to be 18 kids in uniforms with an umpire, but we want you using these Wiffle bats and Wiffle balls and playing the game every day. You know what, some of you may grow up and have an opportunity to play in a great event like the World Series when you're older."
As with his predecessor, Bud Selig, Manfred is committed to a full slate of community events as a backdrop to the Fall Classic in both Kansas City and New York. First up was this effort at the Thornberry Unit of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kansas City, intended to highlight the game's commitment to youth -- particularly through the Play Ball initiative. It also was a natural way to celebrate 20 years of Major League Baseball's ongoing partnership with Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the official charity of Major League Baseball.
Also in attendance were: Royals Hall of Famer and three-time 20-game-winner Dennis Leonard; Frank Sanchez, national vice president of Boys & Girls Clubs of America; University of Pennsylvania freshman Whitney Stewart, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America National Youth of the Year; Dave Smith, president of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Kansas City; Royals broadcaster and emcee Steve Physioc; Royals mascot Sluggerrr; and members of the Royals K-Crew.
Play Ball launched a key initiative by MLB and USA Baseball this summer to spark widespread participation in all forms of baseball activities among all age groups, especially youth. It has dug in at the grassroots level throughout the nation, with support of more than 100 U.S. mayors and continued outreach such as this event. Manfred passed out caps to each of the kids, and Leonard led a fun and relaxed skills competition to fire them up.
"We have placed a tremendous emphasis on providing playing opportunities in underserved areas," Manfred said. "It was really the genesis of the Play Ball program. We want to simplify the game to make sure that kids have an opportunity to play no matter where they live. The Boys & Girls Clubs has just been a fantastic partner for us in not only the Play Ball initiative, but also our RBI [Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities] program as well."
The Commissioner said the World Series is "our best marketing tool" to spread this kind of message. He was asked about MLB's participation numbers at the youth level, obviously one of the reasons he felt the need to spark an interest among youth with Play Ball.
"Our participation numbers are actually pretty good as compared to other sports," Manfred said. "I do think the length of the game is a challenge in terms of keeping people interested. We have a big pace of game initiative that we undertook this year in order to shorten our games, and we do think that's an important effort.
"Our organized baseball numbers are pretty good. What we do think has happened is that the more informal kinds of play -- hotbox, Wiffle ball, home run derby, those sorts of games -- had gone by the wayside a little bit. And one of the focuses of Play Ball is just to remind people you don't need 18 kids in uniform, an umpire and parents watching in order to play our game."
What does Manfred see when he looks out at the faces of all those kids?
"I see the future of the game right here," he said. "It's not only the future of the game, but it's also the future of our country. Our game has a way of teaching character to players, to learn to deal with failure, learn teamwork, great values, and I think kids like this are going to be an important part of the future of our country."
To Leonard, participating in a World Series was nothing new. But doing it this way was. He was 1-1 for the Royals in their 1980 Fall Classic, which they lost to the Phillies. Leonard was coming back from a knee injury and missed the '85 Series, but he got a World Series ring.
"I was fortunate enough to be involved with a couple of World Series, and didn't have an opportunity to do anything outside of going to the ballpark," he said. "Now as a former player who came down here to the Boys & Girls Club in Kansas City, saw the enthusiasm on these kids' faces, we played a little bit, and I found out I can still give up the long ball the way they were hitting me.
"You come out here, you try to inspire a young kid like this to maybe go out and try baseball. Go out and play, enjoy the game and have fun with it. You have to get some of the people involved."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.