MLB's donation to London school another step to growing game

June 23rd, 2023

LONDON -- The next British star to come out of the UK might be at a baseball diamond near you. On Friday morning in Newham, London, MLB made another important, concrete step in the effort to introduce baseball to a new generation of international fans.

In the shadows of Ranelagh Primary School’s towering school building, Commissioner Rob Manfred announced that MLB, in continued partnership with Tapscott Learning Trust and BaseballSoftballUK, would be donating $25,000 to build a permanent baseball diamond for the school and its greater community. The donation is part of MLB’s First Pitch program at Ranelagh, which works to introduce baseball and softball skills to schoolchildren at an early age in a fun, casual manner.

“Whether it’s in the U.S. or here [in the UK], the way you grow a sport is just to start at the bottom,” said Manfred. “You start with young people, and you get young people playing the game. So all of you are really, really important to the future of our sport.”

The group of Ranelagh students, divided up into two teams donning Cubs and Cardinals hats, started the day off going through their normal First Pitch skill games: practicing fielding and throwing, hitting and baserunning in the school’s playground. But in a special twist, they were treated to appearances from some special guests -- Phillies legends Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins, who were later joined by special assistant to the Commissioner Albert Pujols.

Howard and Rollins provided a special mix of coaching and playing -- answering questions, joining in on relay races and providing guidance as they played a scrimmage. At every moment, the two legends were able to see the impact that baseball was having on these kids’ morning, even in brief moments.

“It’s amazing because you see it in their faces,” said Howard, who unofficially became the coach of the Cardinals group for the day. “When they make a play or catch the ball, when they hit the ball well or when they’re running the bases, in everything, you see the excitement that comes across their faces.

“The kids were doing a great job being able to learn the basics of the game. One of the kids was hitting homers, they were making some good defensive plays. … All in all, it was just about having some fun today … and I think the kids have kind of taken to it.”

All week, MLB has stressed the importance of introducing baseball at a young age, so that the game has a chance to be associated with core memories of growing up. Rollins and Howard spoke candidly about the feelings that they remember having when playing baseball as kids. And for them, to see those similar feelings manifest in these British children meant the world to them.

Jimmy Rollins gives instruction during the First Pitch Festival at Ranelagh Primary School.

“It’s dope to see the enthusiasm, the excitement of learning,” said Rollins. “Speaking of Genesis [one of the Ranelagh students], just to hear her say she feels free, and everything goes away when she plays -- I know that. It doesn’t matter what was happening at home, when you stepped between the lines, the only thing that mattered was trying to beat that other team.

“The realities of the world, they stopped for a moment. The only thing that’s real is playing baseball and having fun.”

The legacy gift from MLB also came with support from the Cubs and Cardinals. Alicia Gonzalez, the executive director of Cubs Charities, and Cardinals team president Bill DeWitt III both announced that they would be contributing an additional $5,000 to the project, raising the total donation to $35,000.

The blacktop diamond will act not only as a space for the students to play but as a recreational space for the community as well, hoping to extend baseball’s presence by providing a safe space to learn the sport. Pujols emphasized how pivotal the league’s efforts have been to introduce the sport in a secure environment, allowing their love for it to grow naturally as they experience the sport more and more.

“To be here, this is what’s so good about partnering with MLB,” said Pujols. “It’s about growing the game and giving kids, not only here in the UK but around the world, the opportunity that some of us had. As the Commissioner said, you need to learn from the bottom and get started with the kids.”