ORLANDO, Fla. -- From the moment Luke Gregerson, Zach Eflin and Max Moroff arrived at Bay Meadows Elementary School on Tuesday, the music was playing and the kids were boisterous."Pure excitement," Gregerson said.In truth, pure excitement would have been present even if three big league ballplayers weren't in the kids'
ORLANDO, Fla. -- From the moment Luke Gregerson, Zach Eflin and Max Moroff arrived at Bay Meadows Elementary School on Tuesday, the music was playing and the kids were boisterous.
"Pure excitement," Gregerson said.
In truth, pure excitement would have been present even if three big league ballplayers weren't in the kids' presence, because, hey, they were out of class and outside on a sun-splashed Florida morning, and what's not to love about that?
But the Fun At Bat event staged by USA Baseball, under the umbrella of Major League Baseball's Play Ball initiative, was no ordinary recess for the roughly 100 students on hand. Moroff, the Pirates infielder, set up balls on a tee for the kids to swat. Gregerson, the World Series champion reliever who just signed with the Cardinals, instructed the kids as they ran the bases. Eflin, the young Phillies right-hander, read to a group of students from a baseball-themed book that focused on character and leadership development.
Mere minutes from baseball's Winter Meetings gathering, this was an in-school avenue for the game to grow future athletes and fans and also good citizens -- something the kids at Bay Meadows are already learning a lot about with their school district taking in more than 2,000 students who were displaced by the recent natural disasters in Puerto Rico and Mexico.
"The sport is one thing," said Rob Bixler, an executive curriculum director for Orange County Public Schools. "We all love baseball. It's a great pastime. But also the ability to interact with your peers, knowing good character education, how to get along, teamwork skills -- all those things combine to make this a phenomenal program."
USA Baseball and MLB have ambitious goals for the program. The pilot phase of Fun At Bat reached 490 schools and more than 300,000 kids this year. The hope is to reach over a million kids by the end of 2018, in all corners of the country.
"We want to be limitless," said Paul Seiler, USA Baseball's chief executive officer. "It can't just be about sport. At the end of the day, we want to build character and good people, because that's where we're going to create a ripple and do things that are positive. This [program] moves the needle."
With the curriculum guided by SHAPE America and Franklin Sports providing the plastic bats and balls and other equipment the kids can use to in their physical education classes, Fun At Bat joins Summer Slugger -- a baseball-themed online learning program to help kids retain information from the previous school year -- and Shred Hate -- a program with partner ESPN that helps teachers, administrators and students reduce incidents of bullying -- as efforts by MLB to provide official playing curriculum within school.
"They're in class, in their school element, which is important," said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs. "It's allowing us to really dig at the grassroots level and reach kids all around the country. That's really exciting. The program is still in its infancy stages, but the responses we've had across the country in implementing it has been outstanding."
Having three current Major Leaguers in attendance brought the event -- and the excitement -- to another level, and all three got a kick out of the kids' raw and real enthusiasm.
"I'm lucky to be out here with them," Moroff said. "I didn't have anything like this as a kid."
Orange County Public Schools became the biggest district, to date, to utilize the Fun At Bat program, and USA Baseball and MLB hope to keep the forward momentum going.
"If you're an administrator anywhere in the country and have interest in this program, reach out to us," Seiler said. "We want to bring the goodness and the positivity of this program to you. No matter where you are, we'll find a way to make it work."
Anthony Castrovince has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2004. Read his columns and follow him on Twitter at @Castrovince.