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Play Ball event in Bronx is big hit with kids

Former MLB reliever Veras on hand for Grand Slam Club's LL festivities
Special to MLB.com

NEW YORK -- An older girl tossed slow pitches from the middle of the small makeshift infield set in the outfield grass at Harris Park. A young boy wearing a red Yankees cap was having trouble making contact, but then came the sound of plastic bat meeting plastic ball.

It didn't go far, but those who were watching on this gray day in the Bronx began to cheer. The boy raced around the bases. When he reached home plate, a big smile creased the kid's face.

NEW YORK -- An older girl tossed slow pitches from the middle of the small makeshift infield set in the outfield grass at Harris Park. A young boy wearing a red Yankees cap was having trouble making contact, but then came the sound of plastic bat meeting plastic ball.

It didn't go far, but those who were watching on this gray day in the Bronx began to cheer. The boy raced around the bases. When he reached home plate, a big smile creased the kid's face.

This was a Play Ball event. And this is what Play Ball is all about. It's Major League Baseball's initiative to get boys and girls to discover the joy of playing baseball or softball, to spark or further their interest. No formal team necessary.

"Our main focus is get out and play; just have a good time," MLB senior coordinator for baseball development Kindu Jones said. "I remember the days of drawing a box on a wall and my buddy pitching against me and us competing. Try to bring those types of days back. That would be something special."

MLB has been staging Play Ball events in the U.S., Puerto Rico and Canada over these past four years. The latest event on Saturday was part of the "Five Borough NYC Play Ball Tour." The tour was making its second stop, this time in conjunction with Opening Day festivities for the Bronx-based Grand Slam Club's Little League season.

Grand Slam CEO and founder Belkis Lora estimated about 400 kids from her club -- which has boys and girls ages 3 to 18 and features baseball and softball -- and from the community were at the park. They received fun times, lunch and parting gifts, including Play Ball T-shirts and plastic or foam bat-and-ball sets.

There were several speeches, in English and Spanish. Jose Veras, a former reliever for the Yankees and seven other teams, gave one in Spanish before throwing the day's ceremonial first pitch. Then the kids began rotating among the usual stations -- Bat & Ball (where that young boy found his joy), Grounders & Pop Ups, Agilities, Home Run Derby and Base Running.

"Amazing," said 8-year-old Kaiden Cleto. "Too much fun."

Home run derby, featuring those plastic tools, was especially a hit.

"I think I did pretty great," said 8-year-old Roshely Balbuena.

Jones said the aim of Play Ball is to "try to engage boys and girls, baseball and softball. Our main focus is both sports. Girls and boys are very important to us."

The 33-year-old former outfielder for Farmingdale State on Long Island believes there's an opportunity now to get more boys involved in baseball with the concussion concerns that are plaguing football.

"It's unfortunate concussions do happen in sports, but baseball is a sport where those type of things don't [usually] happen," Jones said. "Kids seem more educated about the game, more knowledgeable about baseball. [That] will hopefully ultimately make them want to play the sport.

"Obviously, we know our game can be a little bit stagnant, but it's a fun game. It's a real fun game. It's a game that if you get engaged very early, you'll learn to love the game."

Jesus Guzman is especially enthused over one aspect of the game. After finishing Grounders & Pop Ups, the member of Grand Slam's 13-14-year-old program was set for home run derby.

"I just like batting a lot," Guzman said.

Jaylen Gutierrez, a 12-year-old Grand Slam Little Leaguer, liked seeing Veras, a native of the Dominican Republic, who appeared on behalf of Grand Slam.

"I feel it's good," Gutierrez said, "because we get to see a person that's been through professional [athletics], played baseball and -- most of everybody's country here is Dominican Republic -- came from poor and is now rich."

Asked what message he wanted these kids to leave with from him, Veras mentioned listening to their parents, doing their homework and then playing ball, and not to waste time on tablets and video games.

"Play catch with your friends," Veras said.

Lora applauded the fun of Play Ball. She also endorsed the value of playing ball.

"This is something really great for the kids, something that helps them to be [entertained], take them out of the street," Lora said.

Jones feels this tour is great for the kids of New York City. He should know. He used to be one of them, having been raised on the Lower East Side, where he still resides.

"We didn't have things like this growing up," Jones said. "To be able to bring it to the city, New York in general, it's huge. These kids need to see events like this. They need to be a part of events like this. I think communities need to be a part of events like this. Ultimately, it brings communities together."

Brian Heyman is a contributor to MLB.com based in New York.