Play Ball event caps MLB's RBI Institute

Memphis-area kids immersed in baseball at AutoZone Park

Play Ball event caps MLB's RBI Institute

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- A bat, a ball and a kid. A formula for fun that has spanned parts of three centuries in America.

Multiply the kid part by 300 on a perfect Saturday afternoon at AutoZone Park, and that will stoke the game's future. That's the plan of organizers of Saturday's free Play Ball event sponsored by MLB's RBI program along with USA Baseball and USA Softball and hosted by the Memphis Redbirds, the Triple-A affiliate of the St. Louis Cardinals.

The event was part of the four-day biennial RBI Institute, which drew more than 100 individuals who administer RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) programs throughout the United States and several countries.

MLB's department of youth programs is putting much of its effort in the next year toward running hundreds of similar Play Ball events designed to get youngsters who are not involved in baseball to see, touch and experience enough of the game to draw them into the RBI fold.

"This is where it starts. Kids just going out and having fun running, throwing and hitting the ball. No fancy uniforms, no coaches, no score," said David James, MLB's vice president, youth programs. "From what we've seen on the registration sheets, a lot of these kids aren't involved in baseball, and our hope is they have fun today, think this is something they want to give a try -- and have them leave with the contact information for RBI coaches here in the area."

At day's end, MLB and the Memphis Redbirds' community foundation announced a $25,000 equipment donation to the Pitch in for Baseball organization that will aid baseball and softball programs in 24 middle schools in the Memphis and Shelby County area.

"This will help establish some new programs, and sustain others," said Danny Gullett, who coaches the Bellevue Middle School and Bellevue RBI baseball teams.

Redbirds president and general manager Craig Unger said the day is important on many levels.

"This will help grow baseball fans, and perhaps even a future Redbird or St. Louis Cardinal. The idea is to leave these kids inspired, while having fun."

Several of the RBI Institute attendees helped work the program along with several members of the Magicians baseball team from nearby LeMoyne-Owen College, a Division III historically black college in South Memphis.

Magicians coach Marcus Smith coached RBI in Atlanta, while he was also an assistant coach at Morehouse College, and coaches some of his former RBI players on the LeMoyne-Owen roster, including catcher Danthony Baker, who said, "You start playing the game, then growing to love it. Now I try and tell kids what a privilege it is to play it (at the college level)."

Langston Connor of Holly Springs, Miss., got a chorus of "Happy Birthday" from the group as he spent his ninth birthday happily tooling around the hitting, baserunning and pop-fly stations set up on the field.

"I play on a football team, but I play baseball with my friends," Connor said, "and I like to hit."

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