"Just come out and have fun," said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president, youth programs. "Run around and play the game. Really, that's what the PLAY BALL initiative is all about. Having fun, playing baseball, anywhere, anytime."
The two-hour event featured five main activities: home run derby, agilities, grounders, popups and baserunning. The kids were given special instruction by volunteers from the Astros Youth Academy and students from Austin High School.
There was star power there, as well. Former Major League outfielder and first baseman Bobby Tolan served as a guest instructor, as did Houston legend Jose Cruz, a veteran of 19 big league seasons who currently serves as a community outreach executive with the Astros.
"This is beautiful," Cruz said, looking around Diez Park. "I'm glad they invited me to be here, because it's Cinco de Mayo, and it's important to me to see the Latino people and the kids. We're going to have a good time. I'm going to watch them play ball and have a good time."
PLAY BALL, a major MLB initiative that Rob Manfred spearheaded soon after he began his post as Commissioner in 2015, has a simple premise that is designed to reach hundreds of thousands of kids from coast to coast: it provides a fun, cost-free environment where the only requirement is to show up and, simply, play baseball.
PLAY BALL events have been held all over the country over the past two years, spanning 100 cities. The intention is for the kids to be exposed to a positive experience at a young age, develop a passion for the sport and parlay that into a lifetime of baseball fandom.
There is no cost to participate in a PLAY BALL event, which allows this MLB initiative to reach kids of all socioeconomic backgrounds.
"A lot of times, there's kids that never even touched a baseball or even swung a bat or caught a ball," Reagins said. "To be able to have their first introduction to baseball and us be a part of it is exciting. They smile and run around and have fun, and that's what baseball is all about."
Diez Park, where the event was held, was the first of several fields the Astros refurbished as part of their Community Leaders program. Each kid who participated in Friday's event received a bat and ball set to take home, as well as PLAY BALL T-shirts and wristbands.
Nathan's Famous, a sponsor of PLAY BALL, provided hot dogs for all participants and their families. They also presented a check donation of $2,500 to the Houston Astros Foundation.