HOUSTON -- There was no Houston Astros Youth Academy in this space the last time the local Major League Baseball team hosted World Series games back in 2005. On a bright and breezy Saturday morning, it was the center of attention as legends and top baseball executives gathered with about 500 kids for a Play Ball event before the Dodgers' 6-2 win over the Astros in Game 4, which evened the Series at 2-2.
"I think youth participation is the future of our sport," Commissioner Rob Manfred said as he spoke to kids and joined in the festivities as part of his ongoing signature initiative. "The best way to get the best athletes is a big pipeline, lots of kids playing. Not everybody is going to become a Major League player, but if they play, they are more likely to be fans in the future.
"The idea with Play Ball is it's an umbrella for all sorts of programs. Events like today are really simple ways to introduce kids to the game, getting them playing in a format they can grasp -- not uniforms, not formal play. Play Ball encompasses everything right up through the elite development camps, which are designed for players who we hope are going to be Major Leaguers someday."
Maybe somewhere among those 500 kids there will be Draft picks. Maybe there will be a star like Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo, who pitched a plastic ball to them on one field. Maybe there will be an Olympic gold medalist like Jennie Finch, MLB's youth programs ambassador, who did the same. Maybe there will be a local legend like Jimmy Wynn, the three-time All-Star who is still a fixture here after doing so much to put Houston baseball on the map in the 1960s.
Among the other dignitaries joining Manfred at the event were Astros owner and chairman Jim Crane; Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner; Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs; Rick Riccobono, USA Baseball's chief development officer; and Destinee Martinez, USA Softball national team alumna.
Various players from youth-affiliated programs were there, including 2017 RBI World Series Champions (Hilo, Hawaii -- Senior division baseball; Philadelphia -- Junior division baseball; and St. Louis -- softball); "Youth Of The Year" from every MLB Youth Academy (Cincinnati, Compton, Dallas, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.); American Legion National Champions, Post 40, from Henderson, Nev.
The kids participated in a series of fun baseball and softball activities that highlight the many ways the game can be played. Additionally, each participant received a bat and ball set, plus Play Ball-branded T-shirts and wristbands to take home. The Positive Coaching Alliance ran a "parent station" to provide more information about youth involvement in baseball and softball. Nathan's Famous provided hot dogs and other fun interactive activities for the kids.
Crane noted that the Astros Youth Academy field has been here a while, emphasizing how much all that activity has helped in keeping youth in a safe and active setting.
"Baseball's done a great job with the Play Ball initiative," Crane said. "It's great to get kids in the community to get exposure to baseball, whether they play high school baseball or beyond, but also it's a learning experience and a team game, and you learn a lot about life playing baseball. To get the kids exposed, have a great place for them to play where they can be safe, is really a testament to Major League Baseball and all the communities that participate."
Additionally, MLB activated a Shred Hate station as part of the new partnership with ESPN on its innovative bullying prevention program. Shred Hate seeks to eliminate bullying by encouraging kids to choose kindness. As part of the program, No Bully works directly with local school districts and cooperating schools through its innovative curriculum.
MLB will activate Shred Hate in Chicago and Washington, as well as expand existing programs in Minneapolis. The ultimate goal of Shred Hate is to cause a tangible reduction of bullying incidents in schools by igniting the compassion of youth.
"Something like this is fun," Rizzo said. "As a kid, I remember growing up, and you get in big groups like this and you can play baseball and go run around. Especially with the Play Ball program and in the inner cities, you get these kids to the field, teach them about baseball a little bit. If they learn just one thing today and have one memory that they can share with their friends, that's an accomplishment. That's what we're trying to do. Major League Baseball does such a great job with all these Play Ball programs and all these camps. It's fun to be a part of."
Hailey Dawson, the 7-year-old girl from Nevada who dramatically threw out the Game 4 first pitch, showed off her new, customized World Series 3-D printed bionic hand at the Play Ball event. She got to meet Rizzo, the Commissioner, Finch and others.
Rizzo warmed up Hailey so she would be comfortable throwing, and she blew a bounced fastball by him as he whiffed with a plastic bat (for fun). Then, he signed Hailey's artificial hand, just as Jose Altuve did later after the ceremonial first pitch.
"I told her to have fun, take a deep breath," Rizzo said. "This is really cool for her, I got to play catch with her. What an inspiration. She's not going to let any disability or disease stop her. It's really cool that Major League Baseball is recognizing her and letting her throw out the first pitch."
Manfred introduced himself to Hailey and her family.
"I can't tell you how excited we are to have you here tonight," he told her. "We're really thrilled to have you."
After that meeting, Manfred said, "I just had a chance to meet Hailey. She's really a terrific young lady. It's an honor for Major League Baseball to have her here to throw out the first pitch. It's an amazing scientific and medical accomplishment."
Crane added: "It just says anybody can recover from a disability and be productive, and we're just glad to have her doing it. It's a big testament to her and gives kids a lot of incentive to get out there and play ball."
Manfred said the goal is to continue to grow the Play Ball program after a few years of establishing a foundation across the continent. Events like this at the World Series and All-Star Week are now common, and they happen elsewhere year-round.
"We want to continue to build relationships like the one we have with Little League, to make sure any kid who wants to play has a chance to do so," Manfred said. "The key to Play Ball's success has been picking the right partners. The U.S. Conference of Mayors has been an unbelievable partner for us, holding Play Ball events around the country. I think we had 220 during the month of August. We want to continue to build on that relationship.
"But it's not just the mayors. Little League has been a great partner. Cal Ripken Baseball is really supportive of our efforts at the more elite level. So we want to continue to build those partnerships to make sure kids are playing the game."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com and a baseball writer since 1990. Follow him on Twitter @Marathoner and read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com/blogs hub. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.