MLB.com Columnist

Anthony Castrovince

Syracuse community teams up so kids can Play Ball

Commissioner Manfred among those on hand to greet 250 inner-city children

Syracuse community teams up so kids can Play Ball

SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- They'll call Jeff Belge's name at some point in next week's MLB Draft. Some club will take the 18-year-old left-hander from Henninger High School and try to woo him into walking away from his commitment to St. John's, then put him through the rigors of professional ball.

Maybe Belge will one day be in the infinitesimal percentage of ballplayers who dream of making it to the Majors and actually do so. Maybe not.

But Belge, by sheer virtue of being a baseball player from this city, is already an outlier.

2016 Draft: Jeff Belge, LHP

"We have five high schools in the city of Syracuse," said city council member Susan Boyle, "and only one baseball team. With 15 kids. There were no cuts."

Baseball is on life support here. But the city is not going to let it die.

And so, on a sunny Friday morning, on the fresh-cut field in Burnet Park, where Major League Baseball kicked off its "Play Ball Summer" event, the city of Syracuse -- along with the local Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program -- ceremonially reacquainted itself with the game. About 250 inner-city fifth- and sixth-grade kids were bused over from their schools, pointed to the diamond and let loose. With Commissioner Rob Manfred, a number of Major League and local dignitaries, and Belge looking on, the kids raced around the bases, they smacked plastic balls and they fielded.

Complete Youth Baseball coverage

What happened here was illustrative of Manfred's big-picture intent, which is to make sure the sport at its highest level is doing everything it can to ignite interest at the lowest levels, so that the future Jeff Belges don't get lost to other sports.

The Play Ball initiative is already one of the key early successes of Manfred's tenure as Commissioner. Last year, Manfred attended the National Conference of Mayors, gave a five-minute speech about the importance of engaging the youth space and came out with 140 pledges from 140 cities to hold a Play Ball event in the month of August.

Manfred on 'Play Ball'

This year, there will be 200 such events spread throughout the summer and throughout the country.

"There are challenges for baseball in the youth market," Manfred said. "It can be expensive. What you need to have a formal game, people see as a limitation. I think it's important for Major League Baseball to emphasize that you can engage in this game in a very simple way."

At Burnet Park, only one kid was even spotted wearing so much as a glove. The vast majority rotated through the stations, laughed and played with their friends, and they did it all without anything fancier than a plastic bat and ball.

"Some of them didn't even know how to swing a bat," said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs who spent the morning pitching to the kids. "By the end, they were making contact."

This direct contact with the game matters.

Manfred has often pointed out that youth participation in a sport is the chief precursor to lifelong fanship. And this particular Play Ball event carried particular significance for the Commissioner, given that he grew up 40 minutes away in small-town Rome, N.Y., learning the benefits of the game.

Sometimes the hard way.

"I was probably the worst Little Leaguer of all-time," Manfred said. "Reasonably athletic, but baseball was not easy for me. But it was a formative experience for me. The game taught me values like teamwork and persistence that stayed with me my entire life."

MLB launches Play Ball

Alas, not everybody comes to the game naturally, especially those in urban areas. Syracuse schools superintendent Sharon Contreras estimated that 80 percent of the kids in her schools are of African-American or Hispanic descent, and many of them had never had any involvement with baseball before Friday.

"On a very personal level," Contreras said, "I think of growing up and my five brothers being so involved in Little League and thinking about how when I go around to parks now, you see kids playing basketball or Pop Warner football, but you don't see them playing baseball. We want to revive that spirit in urban areas. This is our renewed commitment to baseball."

Alarmed with the issue at the high school level, Boyle, mayor Stephanie Miner and others took a closer look at the RBI program. They reached out to MLB and procured a donation of 450 uniforms. They were put in touch with another donor who came through with $14,000 worth of bats, balls and other equipment. And now, the local Boys & Girls Club and volunteers and donors are helping out with transportation logistics and other hurdles to ensure that this summer's RBI season will be absolutely free of charge for those who participate.

"We're trying to break down the excuses and the reasons why people can't participate," Boyle said. "If we can fill these 450 uniforms, we're going to have 450 kids off the street."

On this day, they were out of school, however briefly. And conditions were ripe to create a love affair with the game.

"The goal," said RBI director David James, "is they come out, have fun, swing the bat, throw the ball and say, 'You know what? I like this!'"

Maybe somewhere in that crowd of kids was the next Jeff Belge, who, on the precipice of hearing his own name called by a Major League club, looked on and grew more hopeful about his hometown's connection to the game he loves.

"There's definitely untapped potential here," Belge said. "We've just got these kids here today to stick with it."

Anthony Castrovince is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.