TOKYO -- Major League Baseball's ongoing commitment to its youth outreach programs, coupled with its desire to continue to grow the game globally, has been a running theme throughout the current Japan All-Star Series.
While much of the focus of the tournament is directed toward the on-field play between the Major League All-Stars and Samurai Japan, the youth element is always present, as was the case Saturday at the Tokyo Dome, hours before Game 2 of the six-game tournament.
Twenty-six middle-school kids, ages 13 to 14, were invited onto the field to participate in a baseball clinic with several members of the Major League All-Star team.
A foursome of Whit Merrifield, Rhys Hoskins, Enrique Hernandez and Ronald Acuna Jr. held a station-by-station tutorial in the outfield area of the Dome, an exercise designed to help the kids further develop their basic baseball skills.
"Their fundamentals were really impressive," Merrifield said. "It's not even close to where I was at that age. It was quite impressive, and hopefully, they can keep the desire to get better and continue to improve and play on this field someday."
The event was hosted by the U.S. Embassy, in conjunction with a campaign titled "Go For the Gold," which pairs participating countries in the Olympics with schools in various cities in Japan, the host country of the 2020 Summer Olympics.
The United States was paired with Setagaya, an area outside of Tokyo, and it has focused on both sports and educational-related activities, all of which will be held in advance of, and leading up to, the 2020 Games.
Saturday's clinic on the field at the Tokyo Dome was just one activity planned around the "Go For Gold" initiative. Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky's visit to Setagaya three months ago, when she held a clinic for young Japanese swimmers at a pool in the city, was another.
At the baseball clinic, the young ballplayers were given an up-close view of the four Major Leaguers, who presented their tutorials with help from interpreters who were positioned at each station.
Hoskins, explaining to the kids that he plays both the infield and the outfield for the Phillies, asked them specifically which positions they played, and he offered his expertise in ensuring their approach is the most efficient and accurate as their play in the field.
"These kids are a lot more fundamentally sound than I was [when I was a kid]," Hoskins said. "It's quite obvious that the passion they have for baseball is quite high. That's really cool to see at such a young age."
At the end of the clinic, the players presented the players with gifts, as is customary in Japan when people from different nations meet in a gesture of goodwill.
"I was a kid with big dreams once, and I know how much it means for kids to be here and it's something that they'll never forget," Hernandez said. "I wish we had some more time with them, so we could do a little more with them. You can tell they had a lot of fun. At the end of the day, this is why we play. The kids are our future, and we know how big this is for them."
The clinic was actually the second event of the day for the foursome. The afternoon began with a visit to the MLB Cafe, an officially licensed restaurant located adjacent to the Tokyo Dome.
The venue offers the general experience one would find in a typical upscale sports bar -- libations, food and large-screen televisions to watch games. It's fair to say the restaurant, which opened three years ago, had never actually hosted an actual Major League player. That changed on Saturday, when the four players filed into the main room for a meet-and-greet with the lunchtime crowd.
The event included a question-and-answer session, in addition to the opportunity to meet the players through a raffle.
Each player pulled names out of a box, lottery style, and the winners were gifted with a variety of baseballs and jerseys, autographed by the players.
"The fans have been amazing so far," Hernandez said to the crowd. "Japan has always been a place that I have wanted to come visit. I get to experience this amazing culture that you have here. Playing at the Tokyo Dome has been great."