9-mile-long 'first pitch' benefits KC's MLB Urban Youth Academy

'Relay the Way' tosses ball from Union Station to Kauffman Stadium for opener

9-mile-long 'first pitch' benefits KC's MLB Urban Youth Academy

KANSAS CITY -- Royals' fans picked up Sunday morning where they left off last Nov. 3, when an estimated 800,000 jammed downtown for a raucous World Series championship parade and rally.

Flash forward to Opening Day 2016, and Union Station was once again the backdrop for a Kansas City gathering designed to stoke the fires of community spirit.

The crowd may have been smaller, but it was just as enthusiastic, as young and old lined up in Olympic torch mode for what was billed as the "longest Opening Day first pitch." More than 2,500 fans formed a 9.49-mile path to Kauffman Stadium for a "Relay the Way" event that raised funds for the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy.

Fans who participated in the catch-and-throw relay along the route donated to the cause, and the Smart Baseball used had a computer chip that stored messages from other fans who chose to weigh in on "Relay The Way.com.''

For a $1 donation, fans could upload a message of 140 characters or less. Through the wizardry of technology, those messages were loaded onto the baseball, which was to be delivered as a ceremonial first pitch before the Royals-Mets opener Sunday night.

"Wow, what an incredible day," said Royals general manager Dayton Moore, who was among the speakers before the Smart Baseball journey commenced. "We get to celebrate Opening Day, celebrate the accomplishments of the past and certainly bring hope for the future. That's what the Urban Youth Academy is all about.''

The unique fundraiser, created by marketing agency VML, began approximately 11 hours before the Royals-Mets opener. Besides Moore, the speakers included Carolyn Watley, chair of the fundraising committee for the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy; Kansas City Mayor Sly James; Kathy Nelson, president of the Greater Kansas City Sports Commission and Foundation; and Jon Cook, the CEO of VML.

Royals legend George Brett was one of the first to handle the baseball, on the pavement in front of Union Station, as the marathon catch-and-throw activity began in earnest. James had his glove ready and made a solid catch when the baseball came his way.

"Kansas City is once again making a name for itself," James said. "Not only in the way we celebrate Opening Day together, but in the way we have come together to support this academy and the future of our kids. That's what this is all about. At the end of the day, this is about the kids of Kansas City.

"The academy has the support of so many people in the community. That's a special thing, but frankly it's pretty typical for us in Kansas City to take care of others and make sure we are doing the right thing for our kids."

James saluted VML for its Relay The Way fundraising idea.

"It's an idea that would harness the passion and excitement of Royals fans and citizens across the city," James said.

In conjunction with the "Relay The Way" activity, Major League Baseball and the Royals hosted more than 200 kids from KCK RBI and Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City at Kansas City's Parade Park in the 18th and Vine District on the future site of the Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy. The kids were able to participate in Relay the Way, and then were treated to a Play Ball event in which they engaged in a variety of informal and fun-focused forms of baseball, with MLB representatives and Royals legends by their side.

"Kansas City is a very inclusive, supportive and collaborative city," Nelson said. "The Relay The Way participants today are helping to create a lifetime benefit for Kansas City's youth through the sport of baseball."

Robert Falkoff is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.