ANTIOCH, Tenn. -- While 7-year-old Ethan Baker was picking up a baseball bat for the first time in the Cane Ridge High School gymnasium on Saturday, his father, Nathaniel, was beaming with pride from the gallery upstairs."It's great," Nathaniel said. "It brings smiles and chills to you when you see
ANTIOCH, Tenn. -- While 7-year-old Ethan Baker was picking up a baseball bat for the first time in the Cane Ridge High School gymnasium on Saturday, his father, Nathaniel, was beaming with pride from the gallery upstairs.
"It's great," Nathaniel said. "It brings smiles and chills to you when you see your little boy out there getting a bat or doing any sport for the first time."
Ethan was one of around 80 kids that participated in Major League Baseball's first Play Ball event of 2018 on Saturday, taking place in the Nashville area. The participants went through fundamental drills, including catching, hitting and throwing. The event was held in support of Nashville RBI, Middle Tennessee's arm of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program.
The kids got to learn from Nashville RBI high-school participants, as well as Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo, who saw a bit of himself in the kids learning the fundamentals of baseball.
"I can't remember precisely the first time I grabbed a bat," Trumbo said. "But even before Little League, my dad had a little foam one, and he'd do the same thing they're doing out here today, underhand. We did that a whole lot, and it was a lot of fun. That's the building blocks of what allows you to keep going."
Events like the one on Saturday provide an opportunity for a wide base of new players and fans to enter the baseball family. In a rapidly changing sports and entertainment landscape, early exposure is key to keeping young people engaged in the sport, according to Renee Tirado, MLB's Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.
"It's going to be a game-changer for us, primarily because there's so much competition in the recreational landscape," she said. "Not only just sports, but the phones, esports, gaming. The earlier we get them, the earlier we get them moving, the earlier they get to kind of touch and feel and look and be a part of it, I think they'll stay for the long haul. You're not competing as much for their attention because now it just becomes part of their DNA."
It was a rainy Saturday afternoon outside, but the enthusiasm inside the gym was anything but dull. As music blared over the speakers, both experienced and new players ran through the drills with smiles on their faces and got a free bat and ball to take home.
That eagerness to learn the game was palpable even though the closest MLB team is 248 miles away in Atlanta. The baseball community is strong and growing in the Music City, with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds and numerous robust college programs, including Vanderbilt.
"The attendance here is great to see," said David James, vice president of youth programs for MLB. "It's early in the season on a rainy day. You have the Sounds here, so Minor League baseball is a big partner in Play Ball also. We expect to see Play Ball events in all 160 Minor League markets. We want to go wherever the game is and make sure that all kids have an opportunity, and it's pretty neat for us to start off in a Minor League market. We will definitely do work in Major League markets, but if we can help grow the RBI program here with a Play Ball event, we're happy to do it."
Saturday's Play Ball event is the start of what should be a stellar year for Nashville RBI and the game of baseball in the city. Tony Majors, the executive officer of Nashville metro public schools and the head of Nashville RBI, said the program is going to double or triple in size at the 12-and-under, middle-school and high-school levels.
Majors also said that getting kids introduced to the game at a young age will work to sustain RBI leagues such as the ones in Nashville.
"The reality is if a kid is never introduced to a sport, they don't know if they have the skills or a passion for it," he said. "We have our high-school kids here and kids that played RBI last year working with those children who really have never played the game.
"It's really about them having fun. It's about them being engaged, having fun and saying that this is something they would like to continue. That's the purpose for today."
Giving kids the chance to fall in love with baseball is what the event was all about, according to Trumbo.
"I think the game has become a little more exciting, and that's a good thing," Trumbo said. "At this level, there has to be interest at some point. Events like this introduce [baseball] to kids that have never really thought about playing it. It's a sport they might be really good at. I think that as long as you give them a chance to see if it's for them or not, it's a big deal."
Cutler Klein is a contributor to MLB.com.