ORLANDO, Fla. -- As kids ran around the all-dirt infield, former Major League infielder Carlos Baerga watched and reminisced about the time when he was once in their shoes.
For Baerga, the opportunity to give back to the game of baseball allows him to follow in the footsteps of his role model, Roberto Clemente.
“That was a thing that my father taught me,” Baerga said. “He loved what Roberto Clemente did for so many years. Give to people, give to the kids, do clinics, go to schools, go to the hospitals.”
Baerga, Eve Soto and Diamilette Quilles were the VIPs at a special Play Ball event on Saturday. The celebration, titled “Puerto Rico Baseball Day,” took place at the University of Central Florida’s softball complex.
More than 200 kids from 5 to 12 years old attended the event. They had the opportunity to participate in the following drills: an agility ladder, ground balls and pop-ups, home run derby, running the bases and “bat and ball,” which simulated a scrimmage.
The effort is a continuation of MLB’s commitment to supporting both college baseball and softball programs while engaging with diverse communities through Play Ball.
The VIPs made their way to every group and interacted with all of the kids. The university’s baseball players and clinicians affiliated with the school helped run each of the five drills.
Baerga, a three-time All-Star, played 14 years in the big leagues, with six teams. He spent eight seasons with Cleveland and also had stops with the Mets, Padres, Red Sox, D-backs and Nationals.
Baerga enjoys sharing with kids what it takes to become a baseball player.
“You have to have desire,” Baerga said. “You have to have work habits. You have to have discipline to maintain yourself for a lot of years.”
Soto was on Puerto Rico’s Olympic softball team in 1996. As a kid, Soto said that she had to ride the bus for two hours to get to the field. Playing softball allowed Soto to follow in her brother's footsteps, and now she’s focused on giving back to kids who love baseball and softball.
“I love it because the sky’s the limit,” Soto said. “When I see these young kids doing what they want and we guide them to reach the sky, it’s amazing. I really love it. I like to give them what somebody gave me before.”
Quilles played for the Puerto Rico women’s national baseball team and became the first woman to play in a Puerto Rican men’s league when she joined the Superior Double-A League in Puerto Rico on May 18, 2019. She also participated in a five-team women's league in the Puerto Rico Baseball Federation. In 2009, Quilles was the first player in league history to hit a home run over the fence.
“It’s an honor and a dream come true,“ Quilles said. “I never thought that I was going to be here and be the lucky one. I’m just going to keep focusing on having fun, loving what I do, to try to help others, and I’m going to do everything that is in my reach to help others and help them get to their dreams like I did.”
The genesis of the event came in January with a letter from Fernando Rivera, director of the University of Central Florida’s Puerto Rico research hub, to Commissioner Rob Manfred. Rivera said that he always had discussions with his colleague, David Dumke, about hosting an event like this. With 15 teams playing in Florida for Spring Training and Puerto Rico’s representation in the Majors and Orlando, he wanted to bring an event to the university.
To Rivera’s surprise, Manfred got back to him within a week of getting the letter, giving his full support for the event.
“This is absolutely amazing that we can have that opportunity to have all of the volunteers here, to have my family here to see all of these kids,” Rivera said. “Everybody in the community coming together to our campus, to showcase our campus and the rich Puerto Rican tradition with baseball, it’s amazing. Hopefully, this can open doors.”