'Wanna Play?' leads by example

'Wanna Play?' leads by example

CINCINNATI -- In the 10 years Benjamin Newsom has lived in greater Cincinnati, he has had few reasons to visit downtown.

But when he found out Major League Baseball was starting its "Wanna Play?" program at Fountain Square on Saturday, he wasn't about to miss out on an opportunity to take his two sons to the exhibit.

"It's the first time I've been downtown in I don't know how long," Newsom said. "If it wasn't for work, I wouldn't come down here for years."

Newsom and his two sons, Kaleb, 7, and Simeon, 4, had nothing but positive things to say about the inaugural "Wanna Play?" program held in Cincinnati as a way for Major League Baseball to connect with inner-city communities.

As they waited in line for the batting cages after more than three hours at the program, Newsom said it was the best thing he's seen come to Cincinnati since he moved here from New York.

"From the outside looking in they are trying to bring people back downtown, and it's definitely working," Newsom said.

Program coordinators estimated more than 3,000 people took part in the day that allowed kids to hit from batting cages like Brandon Phillips, to throw a fastball in the pitching booth like Aaron Harang and to run the bases like Willy Taveras.

Also included in the activities was a skills session that featured current Reds players Phillips and Jerry Hairston Jr. as well as former Reds great Eric Davis.

"We want to raise the profile on minority players," Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president of baseball operations for Major League Baseball said. "Kids can be like these players. It ties into other grassroots programs -- R.B.I. (Revitalizing Baseball in Inner Cities), Breaking Barriers -- all those programs were created to instill more of a community spirit in urban America."

The program was one of many activities held this weekend as part of the Gillette Civil Rights Game, which was played Saturday between the Reds and the White Sox.

Solomon said Saturday was only the start, though. He would like to continue the program across the country in areas like Los Angeles and Washington D.C., with the hope to expand to other cities as well.

And with other professional sports like basketball using contracts with shoe companies to generate interest with youth sports fans, baseball has to take the next step by making its players available to these groups in social settings.

"They are actually running clinics with them," Solomon said of the players. "[Kids] will think about that the rest of their lives."

Davis ran these clinics, which included stretching, running and other baseball drills. He said that the program should be in every major city.

"It's a stepping stone to show them what the Civil Rights Movement was all about," Davis said. "It gets them involved to show them how important it was and how far we've come and how important it is to move forward."

Moving forward was especially what Davis stressed. He said this can't just be a one weekend deal.

"This doesn't do any good if you don't follow up," Davis said. "Sometimes you get caught up in the moment. We have to continue to move forward. That's the most important thing."

Among the visitors for Saturday's activities included MLB Commissioner Bud Selig and Reds owner Bob Castellini. They interacted with kids during the skills session.

After the session ended, kids had a chance to ask Phillips and Hairston questions on a variety of topics.

Forest Park native Keith Reed brought his team of 10-year-olds down to experience the day. His team of 13 players got the chance to take part in the drills with Phillips, Hairston and Davis.

"It motivates the kids to actually see some of the ballplayers and learn from them the hard work that you put into whatever you do will ultimately pay off," Reed said. "This is what it takes."

Lornie Starkley who coaches an 18-year-old team in the RBI Program and runs Braves Knothole League in Madisonville, Ohio, also brought his players to the program. He said Major League Baseball fully funded all of his expenses for his RBI team, and the "Wanna Play?" program is another way that baseball is giving back to the inner cities.

"Cincinnati has come a long way," Starkley said. "Look around at all the people. Everyone is represented."

Steve Gartner is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.