Inaugural event encourages kids to participate in baseball and softball activities
By Mark Newman
That was the only way to describe what just happened throughout Major League Baseball during the inaugural Play Ball Weekend. Whether you are a child or one at heart, there is a good chance you just heard that word or used it yourself. It is the whole point of the Play Ball initiative, after all, to make it fun for kids everywhere to participate in casual and formal baseball and softball activities.
"I think at this age, it's just trying to have fun," Orioles closer Zach Britton said this weekend after teaching kids to step and throw at one of the widespread Play Ball clinics by clubs. "You can't overcoach or make it harder than it already is. … We're just trying to spread the love of the game through baseball. We want kids to enjoy it so hopefully they one day follow in our footsteps a little bit, but it's just having fun out here with the kids."
"All these guys are just out here having fun. It allows you to think back to the times of being with your dad or being around all your friends, going out and playing baseball -- having fun," Phillies pitcher Colton Murray said after he and teammate Emmanuel Burriss helped 100 kids ages 7-14 at Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park in Philadelphia.
"I think I had more fun than some of them did. I think the message here is to encourage kids to get outside and be active," Dodgers infielder Justin Turner added after teaming up with Yasiel Puig to pitch plastic balls to kids at perhaps the most unique setting of the whole weekend -- in the sand just 20 yards from the surf on Venice Beach.
Play Ball Weekend was not only MLB's largest effort to date in reaching out to youth, but it also was a symbolic recognition of what all 30 MLB clubs do year-round to support the growth of youth baseball and softball in their respective communities and beyond.
Major League players, coaches and managers wore Play Ball T-shirts during batting practice and Play Ball patches on their uniforms. MLB handed out more than 320,000 plastic bat and ball sets and dished out a massive number of free game tickets. Clubs added their own unique touches to the overall MLB program, and teams that were away over the weekend will designate an upcoming date to schedule their own similar Play Ball activities.
"Play Ball Weekend is a unified demonstration of the National Pastime's commitment to engaging youth in all facets of our game," Commissioner Rob Manfred said. "This special program is an elevated step of the Play Ball initiative, which has been a tremendous vehicle to strengthen the ties with young people all across the United States and Canada."
At Yankee Stadium on Sunday, 1,000 youth baseball and softball players between the ages of 6-14 paraded around the warning track and were surprised by Alex Rodriguez, Nathan Eovaldi, Aroldis Chapman and Michael Pineda for photos. The softball team from MS 22 middle school in the Bronx joined the Yankees as they took the field prior to the game, and two kids from the Bronx threw out ceremonial first pitches.
"I think any little boy or girl would want to walk on a big league field," Yankees manager Joe Girardi said. "I know when I was a little kid, I used to go to Wrigley. I never walked on the stadium, but I got awful close to the field being on the brick wall. It was always exciting for me. So I'm sure it's a big day."
The Yankees' opponents were the White Sox, but the visitors still managed to mark the occasion back home in Chicago. The organization surprised two Tinley Park Bulldogs teams of players ages 11-12 by bringing the atmosphere of U.S. Cellular Field to local Guenzi Field.
White Sox public address announcer Gene Honda, organist Lori Moreland, Southpaw, Mazda Pride Crew members and retro racers provided in-game entertainment from T-shirt tosses and fan contests to music and White Sox-style player introductions. Former White Sox outfielder Michael Huff also attended to catch a ceremonial first pitch thrown before coaching third base for both squads during the seven-inning game.
At the Texas Rangers Youth Ballpark next to Globe Life Park, the Rangers hosted a Play Ball event for 300 kids. "You just want them to have fun," former Texas pitcher Mike Adams said. "They're going to leave here and they're not going to remember the fundamentals. They are just going to remember how much fun they had."
In Arizona on Sunday, brothers Hollis and Rhett Doherty threw out the ceremonial first pitches before the D-backs' home game against the Giants. Hollis plays for the St. Francis Xavier Athletic Association Little League and is undergoing radiation treatment for a DIPG brain tumor. Little Leaguers from Saturday's D-backs Give Back event took the field with D-backs players and a pregame parade around the field for youth sports leagues.
"It's something we try to do all year long," D-backs president and CEO Derrick Hall said. "We try to get kids to play baseball and softball and become fans for life. I really appreciate the fact that Major League Baseball makes it a league-wide initiative."
In Seattle, Mariners players Nelson Cruz, Nathan Karns and Leonys Martin paid a surprise visit to Little Leaguers. The players posed for photos, signed autographs, played catch with some of the youngsters and interacted with their parents.
Before ballpark activities happened in Milwaukee, dozens of local students met on Friday with Brewers players Chris Capuano, Chris Carter and Alex Presley, who visited Brown Street Academy to serve as batting-practice instructors to small groups of elementary school students. The Brewers donated a plastic bat and ball to every Milwaukee Public School child between kindergarten and second grade. More than 20,000 sets were to be distributed to MPS schools, and each school also received a shipment of books.
Brewers pitcher Chris Capuano told them: "We had a great neighborhood. We would invent different games. We played Whiffle ball, we played pickle, and today when there are so many people staying inside and playing video games, I think it's really important that you guys make sure you get outside and play with your friends. That's how I first started to love the game and develop the skills that allowed me to become a Major League Baseball player."
At Wrigley Field on Sunday, local youth baseball and softball players participated in a pregame cap exchange, rosin bag delivery and "Play Ball" announcement before the Cubs-Pirates game -- among many scheduled Play Ball events there. The MLB initiative aligns with Cubs Charities' ongoing programming to promote youth baseball and softball.
For the Red Sox, Play Ball Weekend was really Play Ball Week. Throughout its seven-game homestand that began Monday, the team got youngsters involved. Boys and girls took the field with players before each game, delivered the lineup card, served as honorary bat kids, helped out the grounds crew and assisted Wally the Green Monster.
A group of youngsters got to spend two hours on Saturday touring Tampa Bay's clubhouse, training rooms and batting cages, complete with a chance to meet Logan Forsythe.
At Nationals Park, Sunday was Youth Baseball and Softball Day, presented by Inova, where players and coaches from all area teams were invited to participate in a pregame parade along the warning track. Kids 12 and under could run the bases after the game. Bryce Harper also had his Harper's Heroes event, in which he teams up with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society so that kids can come to the ballpark, get a meet-and-greet and T-shirts, watch BP and get a ticket for the game.
When the Rockies' players and coaches lined up for the national anthem in front of their dugout on Saturday at Coors Field, they found 30 kids from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Metro Denver waiting for them and eager to participate in a cap exchange (kids wore Rockies adjustable caps). The next day, about 1,700 youth baseball and softball players from around Colorado and their coaches enjoyed an epic parade around the warning track and by dugouts.
In Cleveland, about 50 participants from the area ages 9-14 were supposed to take the field on Saturday to participate in the 2016 Play Ball Clinic to learn proper baseball fundamentals. Rain persisted, so they simply moved the clinic to the Indians' indoor facilities.
"For me, you can play ball anywhere," said Matt Kata, Cleveland's manager of youth baseball development and initiatives. "We'd love to be outside, but the reality is we are having fun. Learning about the game ... that's really the goal. Teach the game and hope they love baseball a little bit more."
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.