FORT BRAGG, N.C. -- On Saturday morning at Pope Field, adjacent to Pope Army Airfield on North Carolina's Ft. Bragg, 250 children from military families had a chance to get out and PLAY BALL.
PLAY BALL is a joint program between Major League Baseball, USA Baseball, USA Softball and Minor League Baseball to encourage participation in both formal and casual baseball and softball activities. This particular PLAY BALL event came on the eve of Sunday's regular-season contest between the Atlanta Braves and Miami Marlins, which will be played at newly constructed Ft. Bragg Field. The game, which will air live on ESPN at 8 p.m. ET, is the first regular-season contest in any professional sport to take place on an active military base.
While Sunday's game is a way for MLB and the MLB Players Association to say thank you to America's servicemen and servicewomen, Saturday's event was all about providing a unique baseball experience for their kids.
The children were separated into groups and cycled through various baseball-focused stations. In "Fun At-Bat," children hit a large, rainbow-colored playground ball, ran the bases just as they would in a regular game and took turns playing offense and defense. At "Home Run Derby," they tried to hit Wiffle balls over the outfield fence. In "Agility," they ran relay races and ladder drills. In "Game of Catch," they simply played catch.
"PLAY BALL, in its literal sense, is just to play ball," said USA Baseball executive director Paul Seiler. "It doesn't have to be organized. It's just like we did when those of us who are in our 40s and 50s were growing up. You played catch, you played stickball with your father or with your friends. It's about coming out and having fun."
Seiler's staff at USA Baseball met at their headquarters in Cary, N.C., 65 miles north of Ft. Bragg, at 5 a.m. on Saturday morning to drive to the event. They spoke of the significance of spending part of their Independence Day weekend on a military base.
"One of our staff members said today, 'My job today is to make the kids smile,' and that's the perfect explanation of why we're here today," Seiler said. "Many of these kids have parents who are off in places like Baghdad and Kabul, sleeping on the ground tonight, so I told my staff, when our alarms go off at 3:30 or 4 a.m., we should smile. The hour and a half we're engaged with these kids is very humbling, and it's an honor to be here. It's a chance for us to give back in a very tangible way to the people who protect our freedom."
Heather Van Der Voort and her husband Jason, an Army Specialist with Ft. Bragg's 192nd Explosive Ordnance Disposal Battalion, watched as their 8-year-old son Angelus did drills in Pope's outfield.
"He's really a soccer player, but he's played a little T-ball," Van Der Voort said. "We really hope he has a good time today and is inspired to play more baseball, because my husband and I are both big baseball fans."
Over 3,000 children participate in youth sports annually on Ft. Bragg. Information about the PLAY BALL event was distributed via youth sports email lists and Ft. Bragg's social media.
"All the sports are very popular on base," said Ft. Bragg chief of youth and school-aged services Patti Turner. "A lot of people in the military community grew up playing sports, and that gave them the leadership skills to be in the military. There is a strong focus on physical fitness here, and they want their kids actively engaged, too."
That mindset fits perfectly with PLAY BALL's mission to encourage participation in both formal and casual baseball and softball activities.
"Major League Baseball is really engaged across the country in the PLAY BALL initiative to get people to play the game, no matter where they're from or what their background is," said Tony Reagins, MLB senior vice president of youth services. "We just want kids playing the game, and today's event is a great representation of that."
Each child at the event received a free PLAY BALL T-shirt and a bat-and-ball set. Chevrolet also donated new baseball and softball equipment for children whose parents and guardians are stationed at Fort Bragg. In addition, ESPN Corporate Citizenship made a grant of $100,000 to the Boys & Girls Club, US Army Garrison Fort Bragg, to start a new Jr. RBI division of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. The grant, according to Turner, will allow any child who wants to play baseball or softball on Ft. Bragg over the next two years to play for free.
For more information on MLB's PLAY BALL initiative or to find an event near you, visit PlayBall.org. The website is also accessible via MLB.com, USABaseball.com, USASoftball.com and other partner websites.
Lindsay Berra is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.