Houston hosts Play Ball event for youngsters

HOUSTON -- The Houston Astros Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park was full of activity and games Saturday for Houston Community Day. A crowd of several thousand gathered on the grounds for the annual Family Fun Day in the Park, with baseball being the central theme.

The junior RBI program, for ages 12 and under, played three baseball games among the four playing fields. On Field 3 was an event called Play Ball, a Major League Baseball initiative to encourage participation in baseball for all ages, with special attention on the youth.

Play Ball had youngsters hit off the batting tee, hit balls for distance and throw for accuracy. The agenda included playing the baseball game of 500 and Wiffle ball. It was just kids playing baseball and having fun with no score being kept and no pressure.

"This Play Ball is big because we want kids to start playing baseball," said Darrell Miller, vice president over youth and facility development for Major League Baseball, who was in attendance Saturday in North Houston. "It's fun to introduce baseball to these other kids that we have been trying to reach in the past.

"Now they're having fun playing a low-stress game. We want to make sure everyone in America has a chance to play baseball, the greatest game ever created. We don't want them to be afraid of the game, be intimidated about the skill level that they feel like they're going to have to be under, and just enjoy themselves.

"That's why the Commissioner [Rob Manfred] really wants the Play Ball to take over. So that we can get that whole generation of kids that aren't playing interested in the game."

Family Fun Day in the Park has been a staple in the community the past nine years, started by Turner, who in December was elected mayor of Houston. The Astros have been involved since the April 10, 2010, opening of the Urban Youth Academy, designed to increase interest in baseball among the Houston-area communities.

"It's a fun time to be a part of the Houston Astros and this program because we're winning on the big league level and we're winning also in the community," said Daryl Wade, director of the Astros Urban Youth Academy.

"The game of baseball is important to the Houston community, and it's important for the kids to have the opportunity, no matter where they are from. All kids should have an opportunity to play."

Former Major Leaguer Bobby Tolan, one of the academy's 14 staff instructors, knows the importance of getting inner-city youngsters involved in baseball. Tolan's teammates while playing on an age 14-16 team in Los Angeles in the early 1960s included Dock Ellis, Roy White, Reggie Smith, Bob Watson, Willie Crawford, Brock Davis and Dave Nelson -- all of whom eventually played in the Major Leagues.

"I'm happy to be part of the academy because it gives me a chance to give back to the community," Tolan said. "I get to give my experience back to these kids and teach them the proper fundamentals of baseball, and it still keeps me young at heart.

"I think it's great for the people to come out and see all the instructors. It's good for days like this, family days, where these people get to come out, bring their kids out and enjoy all these festivities and activities, and then they get to mingle with the instructors. It's great for the community."

There are more than 2,000 members of the Astros Urban Youth Academy. And a number of youngsters were signing up Saturday.

"Major League Baseball and the Astros are 100 percent supportive of what we do here, and that's a good thing to know, that you have those two behind you," Wade said.

Kayla Robinson, a 16-year-old shortstop from nearby Aldine Eisenhower High School, has been a member of the academy since its inception. She wasn't playing softball Saturday but was teaching youngsters the basics of the game in the Play Ball event.

"I grew up here," Robinson said. "I was one of the first people to be here when they first created it, so being here is like my life. I love softball, and helping out the little kids is the best opportunity that anyone can have. I love teaching the little kids how to field and catch and hit.

"If I hadn't applied here, I probably wouldn't be playing at all. They taught me everything I know."

Among the participants in Saturday's Pitch, Hit & Run, for ages 14 and under, was 10-year-old Ariando Henderson, who has been a member of the academy for three years.

"It's really fun," Henderson said. "The kids are learning. I learn base stealing, pitching, catching, everything. It's a good day to play baseball."

Astros owner Jim Crane is a huge supporter of youth sports. With help from community leaders, the Astros have rebuilt 20 Houston-area baseball fields.

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