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Watson, Bucs promote inclusion at PLAY event

MLB.com

Tony Watson won't forget what he did Tuesday morning at PNC Park any time soon.

The Pirates left-hander had just finished speaking to a group of kids when a young girl with Down syndrome approached him. First, she gave him a high five. Then she followed that with a hug. The moment struck a chord with Watson.

Tony Watson won't forget what he did Tuesday morning at PNC Park any time soon.

The Pirates left-hander had just finished speaking to a group of kids when a young girl with Down syndrome approached him. First, she gave him a high five. Then she followed that with a hug. The moment struck a chord with Watson.

"She was having a blast. ... I'll go tell my wife about it," Watson said. "It was a lot fun to impact somebody's life like that."

Kids from all backgrounds had the special opportunity to participate in the National PLAY campaign on Tuesday at PNC Park. PLAY, which stands for Promoting a Lifetime of Activity for Youth, is a public awareness campaign of the Professional Baseball Athletic Trainers Society (PBATS) in conjunction with the Ruderman Family Foundation, the Taylor Hooton Foundation and the Henry Schein Cares Foundation.

It will host events in all 30 Major League parks this year, with children from ages 8 to 17 selected to take part. There have been more than 300 events since 2004, reaching thousands of children with messages regarding the importance of healthy decisions and active lifestyles.

The program was created in 2004 to promote healthy living and disability inclusion among children. In 2014, the PLAY campaign became the first program in professional sports to include children with disabilities. It has since added a fully inclusive aspect in partnership with the Ruderman Family Foundation and the National Down Syndrome Society. The NDSS will bring a group of young people with disabilities to 10 PLAY programs this season, including Tuesday's event at PNC Park.

Promoting a Lifetime of Activity for Youth

"To have everybody included and doing everything together as a big group is really cool," Watson said. "It's fun to see all these young kids getting along and communicating and being in activities together. I think that this PLAY is a really cool and important piece for our youth."

Pirates head trainer Todd Tomczyk was also present to give the youth tips on how to live a healthy lifestyle. He then guided the children through several training stations, showing them several aerobics exercises.

But Tomcyzk emphasized that the ultimate goal of PLAY is to change the American perception about the value of people with disabilities. He believes that baseball can be a powerful tool to erase stigmas.

"[Baseball] is such a great platform," Tomczyk said. "You think about children with disabilities, specifically Down syndrome, how smart and intelligent they are. ... baseball is an unbelievable platform to promote this."

Former Secretary of Labor Neil Romano, who is now a senior advisor to PBATS, also recognizes baseball's power to positively influence children with disabilities, saying that PBATS made it a priority early to help give kids with disabilities the same opportunities as other kids.

"Baseball has the richest history of any sport for having people with disabilities play the game," said Romano, referencing Jim Abbott, Curtis Pride and Bo Jackson as successful baseball players with disabilities. "PBATS originally began by doing a series of public service announcements with guys who had disabilities. ... The response that we got from people was remarkable. They said I didn't know that. I would say not less than once a week, we get a letter from parent who said, 'I wouldn't let my kid play baseball because he's only got one arm. Now he is the catcher.'"

On Tuesday, all kids had the same opportunities. They did the same drills. They learned the same lessons about healthy living. And they all had the chance to meet Watson.

"It's important for them to be all included," Watson said. "They realize that they are having a good time with everyone else. They are just one big group. ... They don't see [the disability]. They are just out here having fun.

"That's what makes it special. ... The smiles that you see on their faces, they are all the same. It's really a lot of fun."

Jonathan Toye is a reporter for MLB.com based in Pittsburgh.

Pittsburgh Pirates, Tony Watson