BRADENTON, Fla. -- Half an hour before he lined up at shortstop on Saturday morning, Pirates prospect Cole Tucker strode across Field 3 at Pirate City in full uniform with a smile on his face. Around him, kids were running the bases, playing catch, swinging foam bats and enjoying a
BRADENTON, Fla. -- Half an hour before he lined up at shortstop on Saturday morning, Pirates prospect Cole Tucker strode across Field 3 at Pirate City in full uniform with a smile on his face. Around him, kids were running the bases, playing catch, swinging foam bats and enjoying a day that seemed made for baseball.
For the second straight year, Major League Baseball held a special "Play Ball" event in Florida during Spring Training. The Pirates played host on Saturday morning, opening up a field at their training complex so local youth could participate in the free event designed to promote the fun side of baseball and softball.
• Kids get to Play Ball on Spring Training fields
The 120 boys and girls in attendance, all clad in "Play Ball" shirts and Pirates hats, took swings against Pirates Minor Leaguers, ran the bases with guidance from former Major League outfielder Mark Whiten, fielded popups and grounders and dashed through agility drills set up in center field.
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"It's a great opportunity for us to give back to our community here in Bradenton, our southern home, and make sure the kids that are playing or thinking about playing baseball get an opportunity to play on the same field that the Major Leaguers and Minor Leaguers play on. It's a thrill," Pirates president Frank Coonelly said. "We love growing the game of baseball. We love giving kids an opportunity to really see what it's like, if this is a dream for them. Even if it's not a dream for them, to have fun and come run around on the field on a beautiful day."
More than 26,000 children participated in "Play Ball" events last year, said MLB vice president of youth programs David James. MLB plans to host at least 30 events this season in addition to the initiatives done by each club. For example, the Pirates host summer camps, recognize a local youth baseball or softball "Team of the Game" each homestand and hold an annual "Play Ball" event each year at PNC Park, in addition to their work with Pittsburgh RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and the Junior Pirates program.
In many locations where MLB held "Play Ball" events last season, James said, they received reports of increased youth league registration and requests for return visits.
"We think that's the overall impact of this -- by having fun and a good time, that's going to transition them to continue to play and be a long-term fan of the game," James said.
That may have been the case Saturday for young Ethan Storbeck, originally from South Africa, who attended the event at Pirate City.
"I'm learning how to play baseball with professionals," Ethan said. "I'm having a lot of fun, because I never knew how to play because I came from South Africa, and South Africa is very different. You don't get sports like this."
And they don't get instruction from someone like Whiten, who spent 11 years in the Majors and is now the Tampa RBI director of operations. At one station, Whiten and Pittsburgh's prospects helped kids learn to run the bases like big leaguers.
"To me, if you're not having fun playing, you're not going to learn the game," Whiten said. "Have fun and pay attention to detail. That's something they're going to learn as they get older. Right now, to me, when they're younger, it's just about having fun and playing the game."
That seemed to be the case Saturday morning. Kids slapped foam balls around the outfield, wheeled around the bases and played catch with professional baseball players. Even the Minor Leaguers running drills, including pitching prospects Luis Escobar and Yeudy Garcia, seemed to have smiles permanently affixed to their faces.
"For some of these kids here, they're going to remember this day forever, because these are Pirates players," James said. "They're going to go back home afterward and say, 'I hit a dinger off a guy who plays for the Pirates,' and they'll remember that for the rest of their lives."
Adam Berry has covered the Pirates for MLB.com since 2015. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook and read his blog.