MLB.com Columnist

Barry M. Bloom

Play Ball events target new, different places

MLB looking to introduce, teach sport to those on youth level

Play Ball events target new, different places

MESA, Ariz. -- Jordan Watson, a pitcher in the D-backs' organization, wishes there were Play Ball events like the one here on Friday morning when he was a kid. Watson had a hardscrabble life growing up in Oklahoma City, Okla., and baseball was his refuge.

"From the time my father took me out for my first catch when I was 3 years old, baseball was 24/7 to me," Watson told MLB.com. "He turned on a game and I still remember this. It was a Yankee game and I saw Derek Jeter play. Once I saw him play, I wanted to play. He did everything right. I didn't have the best upbringing, but it was a great outlet for me."

These are the kind of links Major League Baseball is trying to create. On Friday, MLB, the D-backs, Rockies and Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community held this event on the newly refurbished Lehi Baseball Field.

Watson and Tucker were there, both pitchers from the Arizona system in the early stages of recovery from Tommy John surgery. From the Rockies, there were pitcher Chris Rusin and catcher Tom Murphy, rebounding from their own injuries. Murphy had a bone in his arm cracked the other day when Anthony Rizzo accidentally clipped him with a back swing. Rusin is nursing an oblique strain he sustained last month pitching in a game against the Indians.

Rusin said he was glad to have the time away from the complex at Salt River Fields to work with the kids.

"I just wanted to come out here and show them a good time," he said. "Not every kid has a chance to play baseball. This is a big day for them. It's fun to get out here, show them a few of the little things about baseball and teach them some things that hopefully they can take with them."

Lehi Field is on tribal land across a two-lane road where row upon row of tunas -- eatable prickly pear cactus -- is growing. On the ballfield, a couple of hundred bright-eyed children from the local community participated by running bases and smacking plastic balls around with plastic bats. Most of them took part in structured drills, but a few just freelanced, tossing a ball to each other or simply against a fence.

MLB, through its Youth Initiative Programs and under the direction of Commissioner Rob Manfred, will stage some 300 such events this year in partnership with the U.S. Conference of Mayors. But this was the first one in conjunction with Spring Training, in full swing until the end of March around the Cactus League.

"The outreach through the grass roots level and bringing the game to the kids is what's important," said senior vice president of MLB's Youth Programs Tony Reagins. "But most importantly, we just want them to have fun. We're going into communities like this where typically you don't see baseball.

"What we're finding is that kids want to play. Once they engage, the immediate reaction is a smile."

There were plenty of smiles and a lot of laughs all the way around from kids who could be future baseball players and certainly big fans.

When Manfred took over for now Commissioner Emeritus Bud Selig early last year, Manfred made it clear he wanted to build on the foundation already set to enhance initiatives in youth involvement and the sport's overall diversity.

Those programs are commonly known as 2.0, Reagins said, taking the established to the next level. For example, there's a plan for a special Play Ball event at the Mount Rushmore National Memorial in Keystone, S.D., later this year

"We're working on that right now," said Reagins, a former general manager of the Angels. "Again, we're just taking the game to places where you wouldn't typically find the game. And if you can re-create that for kids throughout the country maybe we have something."

Watson, for one, is a big supporter. Somehow he made it out of the dust bowl of Oklahoma with little help, except a few friends, a ball, glove, and bat.

"Instead of getting caught up with whatever everyone was doing in the streets and partying, I'd just work on baseball mechanics and stuff like that," he said. "I was obsessed. When I watched a game, I'd turn the commentators off. That's how much I loved it."

But there was nothing like this.

"No," Watson said. "I only had a couple of friends, who were really into baseball and those were the guys I hung out with. I wish I would've had more stuff like this. Just to be able to give back to these kids, give them tips on how to run the bases, hit the ball, all that, it's a great thing for me."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog, Boomskie on Baseball. Follow @boomskie on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.