Play Ball Weekend launches in Chicago

Event being used to encourage young fans to play baseball and softball

Play Ball Weekend launches in Chicago

CHICAGO -- Cubs chairman Tom Ricketts stood on stage in front of 250 elementary schoolers Wednesday and asked the question.

"Who in here is a Cubs fan?"

The small auditorium erupted with cheers.

"Who knows where the Cubs play?"

"Wrigley Field!" the crowd yelled in unison.

"How far is that from here?"

"Three blocks!"

The students were gathered for the launch of Play Ball Weekend, a league-wide effort from Major League Baseball to engage young fans and support participation in baseball and softball. Play Ball events will take place in parks around the league Saturday and Sunday.

Kids will be stars during Play Ball Weekend

And what better place to start than Hawthorne Scholastic Academy on Chicago's North Side, where the Cubs are off to their best start since 1907.

"We thought Chicago was a great place," said MLB senior vice president for youth programs Tony Reagins said. "It's in the middle of the country. Great fans, a great atmosphere for baseball. So we thought that this would be a nice kickoff point."

After Hawthorne principal Nathan Pietrini and Ricketts spoke in the auditorium, Ricketts introduced Wednesday's surprise guest with a video of highlights from Ryne Sandberg's career.

Then Sandberg, a 2005 Hall of Fame inductee, came on stage to mass cheers.

More information on the Play Ball initiative

"Do you guys really know who I am?" Sandberg joked. "Or did your parents just tell you?"

The legendary Cubs second baseman then led the students outside to a small turf area where representatives from USA Baseball and Softball directed seven stations ranging from agility drills to home run derby. Some students even got pointers on their swing from Sandberg himself.

"Especially with the way things are going here on the North Side, if I was a young player right now, I'd be in the front yard, I'd be out in the school yard, emulating Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell and players like that," Sandberg said.

The goal of the Play Ball initiative is to encourage children to do just that. Play Ball Weekend is an extension of the Play Ball program, which uses community outreach to make the game accessible, promote healthy lifestyles and show how baseball can be played in a fun environment.

"We want the kids to know you don't have to have 18 players, an umpire, a field to play our game," Reagins said.

At the end of the session, each child got to take home a plastic ball and bat, another way to encourage the kids to enjoy the game.

And though Ricketts seemed to already have an audience full of Cubs fans, Wednesday also seemed like a perfect combination for ensuring the love of baseball and the Cubs carries on to another generation.

"I think a winning baseball team brings a spotlight on the sport, but the key is just to remind kids that it isn't about your equipment, it's just about having some friends over and a yard," Ricketts said.

Cody Stavenhagen is a reporter for MLB.com based in Chicago This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.