Major League Baseball celebrated the AFL's Fall Stars Game with a special Play Ball event at Salt River Fields, the Spring Training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Colorado Rockies. For an hour and 30 minutes, local kids ages 6 to 12 got to go through six stations of baseball-and-softball-related activities -- grounders and popups, agility, baserunning, two simulated mini-games and a home run derby.
"We want to show that there's an opportunity for play no matter who you are, no matter what size you are, or where you come from," said Bennett Shields, a staff member for MLB's youth programs department. "There's an opportunity to play our sport. It might not mean playing it at the highest level, that's fine."
And because the event preceded the 12th annual Fall Stars Game, the youth also got to hear from a couple of players in that game. The D-backs' Kirby Bellow and Rockies' Yency Almonte stopped by before the event began to give the kids a few words of encouragement.
Both players related a few of their first memories in baseball. Bellow said he hit a home run on his dad's birthday three straight years. Almonte, now a right-handed pitcher, recalled his excitement when his older brother hit a home run, though he admittedly didn't know what it meant at the time.
Both agreed that Play Ball serves an important purpose.
"For me, it's just keeping them fit, keeping them out of the streets, having something to do," Almonte said. "Not just being at home playing video games, but being active."
As one boy walked into the field with his father, he ran to the warning track, mesmerized at its size. He then proceeded to act like he was running back to the wall to rob a home run.
Holding the event at Salt River Fields provided a bit of a big league feel, and that was only strengthened when kids heard from Bellow and Almonte.
"It brings you down to earth," said 13-year-old Connor Derivan, who called the Minor Leaguers' talks "inspirational."
The on-field drills aren't difficult, but are designed to teach kids basic skills. Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs, said he hopes the participants will eventually become lifelong fans of the sport.
"They're our future; that's why we do what we do, so these kids can have a chance to participate in our game," Reagins said.
As initiatives like Play Ball continue to grow, the main goal will remain the same.
"Bringing baseball to places it's really never been before," Reagins said.