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Softball star Finch wows kids at OKC Play Ball

Special to MLB.com

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A selfie with an Olympic gold medalist meant more than could be expressed. After two young girls posed with Olympic medal winner Jennie Finch at the Play Ball event on Saturday morning at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, they could not speak -- only smile.

Others cheered, posed for more photos or even tried to take Finch deep in a home run derby.

OKLAHOMA CITY -- A selfie with an Olympic gold medalist meant more than could be expressed. After two young girls posed with Olympic medal winner Jennie Finch at the Play Ball event on Saturday morning at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark, they could not speak -- only smile.

Others cheered, posed for more photos or even tried to take Finch deep in a home run derby.

"Amazing," 7-year-old Rylie Hillis said moments after hitting a long fly ball off Finch.

The Play Ball event was in Oklahoma City for a third straight year, this time with the NCAA Women's College World Series being played just a few miles away. It's a tournament Finch and several USA Softball team members know well.

"It's so much fun to see the College World Series grow and see how many fans come out," Finch said. "With the Women's College World Series a couple of blocks away, it's truly incredible. The excitement in the air, these young girls and boys with the game of softball and baseball -- it's truly special."

Play Ball's initiative is to encourage young people and communities to engage in baseball- or softball-related activities. Hundreds of kids of all ages attended the event, despite the rising temperatures on a clear day.

They were searching for inspiration, and they found it in Finch, an All-American, Olympic gold medalist and the face of American softball.

"I want to tell you guys to have dreams and believe in yourself," Finch told the participants to begin the day. "You have to have the dream, you have to have the goal and then you have to believe in yourself."

Finch spent the day working with and encouraging the younger generation. She even unleashed her rise ball -- though not at full speed -- to one unfortunate boy who asked to see it.

Later, Finch helped teach a 12-year-old boy how to swing a bat for the first time.

"That's what it's all about -- exposing them to the game," Finch said. "A lot of times, they don't know which hand the glove goes on. They see it on TV, but for them to come out here and actually get to experience it, put a bat in their hands and swing at a pitch, it's exciting to experience those firsts with the young athletes."

Tweet from @JennieFinch: Life is good when you���re playing ball! Had a blast at the @MLB #PlayBall event w/ @okc_dodgers & @USASoftball These free @PlayBall events gets kids playing ball, being active, & having FUN! ������Highlight, was hearing a 12 yr old boy say it was his 1st time ever swinging a bat! pic.twitter.com/lfOcyANnlS

The event was entirely female-staffed, from the athletes to MLB staff in attendance. Several members of USA Softball participated, as well, offering tips and encouraging participation before heading to the WCWS.

"It just raises awareness of the game," former Alabama star Haylie McCleney said. "Anything that we can do to grow our sport and really continue to empower females and female athletes is a big thing."

And for baseball and softball, the day was a victory for the future.

"It's getting families together, being outside, being active," Finch said. "In this day and age, we're in a battle against technology. I know, being a mother of three, that this is the best part of baseball and softball: seeing the families come out and do this activity and celebrate the game, celebrate youthfulness and just having fun and exposing them to the game of softball and baseball."

Jacob Unruh is a contributor to MLB.com.