OAKLAND -- Bip Roberts remembers playing on the baseball field at Oakland Technical High School many years ago -- long before he amassed 1,220 hits in 12 seasons in the Major Leagues. He laughs as he remembers a 22-4 blowout win on that diamond, when he was just a baseball-crazed
OAKLAND -- Bip Roberts remembers playing on the baseball field at Oakland Technical High School many years ago -- long before he amassed 1,220 hits in 12 seasons in the Major Leagues. He laughs as he remembers a 22-4 blowout win on that diamond, when he was just a baseball-crazed Oakland kid hoping to follow in the footsteps of his heroes like Bert Campaneris and Sal Bando.
Some four decades later, he's back on that very field -- since named Rickey Henderson Field -- and this time, he's the Oakland hero. He addressed a large group of excited kids and their parents, gathered early on a beautiful Saturday morning in the East Bay as part of the 25th Play Ball event hosted by Major League Baseball in 2018.
"As a young kid who grew up here in Oakland, I'm just thankful I can stand up here wearing this Oakland A's jersey, because I, like you, had a dream, too," Roberts tells the crowd. "You guys dreaming? Dreaming about playing baseball? Someday wearing this A's uniform? I had that same dream."
MLB's Play Ball initiative, which began in 2015, aims to boost youth engagement and foster love for the sport by giving young fans a chance to enjoy baseball and softball at the most basic level -- no equipment needed. The A's had around 120 kids registered for the event, but as always, walk-ins were more than welcome.
On Saturday, Roberts was joined by A's employees, team mascot Stomper and the racing Hall of Famer mascots, along with players and coaches from Cal and Cal State East Bay, who served as "clinicians" at the five stations through which participants rotated: home run derby, popups and grounders, agility, bat-and-ball and baserunning.
"It's really fun," said Zoe, a 10-year-old A's fan from Oakland, who, like many, counts Matt Chapman as her favorite player. "I've been to a couple of baseball camps, and there are also college players there, and everyone's really good, and it's really fun."
Zoe has played softball for four years, but she and her friends still had a great time at the Play Ball event, in part due to the Athletics' continued focus on working with USA Softball and local softball teams to make sure that local girls are aware of the Athletics' camps and clinics.
"Baseball is obviously what we do, and we do it very well, but we're making sure the girls feel heard as well," said Stephanie Gaywood, the A's director of community engagement.
For their part, the A's have also worked to heavily expand on the league's efforts in their own community. Prior to Saturday, the team had already hosted five similar popup events in parks around the community in 2018, and it's seen engagement increase throughout the year.
Looking forward, they have started outreach for a program that they call "Extra Bases," which will create Little League programs affiliated directly with the Athletics and the wealth of resources, personnel and opportunities they have to offer.
"This is what we want the clubs to do," said David James, MLB's vice president of baseball and softball development. "One of the tag lines for Play Ball is, 'However you play ball, play ball.' So whether it's this informal stuff [or] a local league ... we just want kids to engage in bat and ball, throwing and catching activities, and let that take them to whatever form of the game that they want to play."
Play Ball can be particularly meaningful for a community as tight-knit as that of Oakland, which remains deeply proud of its rich baseball tradition and of its sons playing in the Major Leagues. Roberts believes that, for young fans, seeing someone from their city playing at the MLB level can make the dream feel more attainable for them.
And ultimately, that's what Roberts wants for the kids gathered around him. He talks about how wonderful he would feel if one of them were to play in high school, college or the big leagues because of the impact that he had on them. He wants to help one of them to become the next Bip Roberts, Jimmy Rollins or Dontrelle Willis -- Oakland natives that made it big.
"We all know Oakland, and we all grew up in and love Oakland for what Oakland is," Roberts says to nods among the gathered crowd. "Without Oakland and all the history -- we're on Rickey Henderson Field right now, and that's another Oakland legend -- we want to create more legends by bringing these young kids out here to represent us."
"The fact that Bip played on these fields, the same fields that these kids are playing on, gives them a goal that they can actually attain -- I can be a Major League Baseball player," Gaywood said. "If baseball isn't the way they want to go, if professional softball isn't the way they want to go, they can find a home at the Oakland A's and in the front office."
Do-Hyoung Park is a reporter for MLB.com based in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark.