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MLB's Play Ball event is big hit with children

Former players thrilled to give instruction, answer questions

NEW YORK -- Nash Grier signed the white Play Ball T-shirts all the kids were wearing, posed for pics and dived for a boy's soft liner to left. Andrew McCutchen answered their questions about which Mets pitcher throws the hardest and talked to them about dreams.

Mookie Wilson showed them fundamentals and promised them happy moments that stay with you for life, like one that happened for him in 1986. David Eckstein, a World Series MVP nearly a decade ago, wore his USA Baseball jersey and helped out along with the whole 18-and-under team that he just helped coach to the world championship a couple months ago in Japan.

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Major League Baseball conducted its second Play Ball event of this 111th World Series, having held one at a Boys & Girls Club in Greater Kansas City on the day of Game 1. This one was held on Saturday morning at Hinton Park, the youth baseball facility that was built by MLB for the 2013 All-Star Week here near Citi Field, starting a day-long series of events with focus on enabling youth to start playing baseball and softball at an early age.

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Some 300 kids from local Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) leagues, Queens youth baseball/softball associations and local little league programs participated in the Play Ball event, which featured activities that highlight the variety of informal ways baseball and softball can be played. Also in attendance were various members of youth-affiliated programs, including 2015 RBI World Series Champions from the Dominican Republic, Miami and Cleveland; MLB Urban Youth Academies from Cincinnati, Compton, Houston, New Orleans, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C.; and the USA Baseball 18U champs.

"I think kids should always play baseball," said Grier, star of the new movie "The Outfield" that will be released Nov. 10 on iTunes. "I grew up in Charlotte and I started playing baseball when I was 5 or 6. Up until I was 10, it was one of my favorite sports. And then when we started doing tournaments and traveling and doing AAU stuff, I think I stopped playing around 13, because I actually transferred to lacrosse. But I'm always a baseball fan at heart. It's America's pastime.

"It's one of the most fundamental and beautiful games. Being here at this event, and growing up as an athlete, this is the place to be at -- especially turf, that's the coolest thing. It's just been cool to see all these kids and how happy they are, how much fun everyone's having, and I just wanted to come and be a part of it. The weather's perfect, everything's perfect."

It was almost perfect having him show up alongside McCutchen at one of the many skills stations. There was the star of "The Outfield" along with a real outfield star. The Pirates' center fielder had just received the Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevrolet the previous evening, before Game 3, and he interacted with the young attendees as much as possible before a flight home.

"It means a lot," McCutchen said of the event. "I just love what they are doing here. To interact with those kids, when they get to know me on more of a personal level, they have questions and I'm able to answer them. To know there is a chance and they have a chance.

"A lot of people think we're these superheroes, but they forget that we were kids once before, too, with the same dreams. So it's good to be able to interact and let them know that and just talk to them."

The kids played Wiffle ball, took a turn at Home Run Derby, tried to beat the clock in baserunning drills and played vitilla, which is a form of baseball played in the Dominican with plastic caps and thin sticks. Every kid went home with a plastic bat and ball set from Franklin and that Play Ball T-shirt probably bearing star signatures.

"They've done a tremendous job, and especially this year in such a short time," McCutchen said of Play Ball, the major 2015 push by Commissioner Rob Manfred and USA Baseball at "They're doing a good job getting everyone involved and just spreading the game of baseball around."

Wilson -- who answered more than a few questions about his 1986 dribbler through Bill Buckner's legs to lift the Mets to their epic Game 6 victory en route to a title -- gladly showed the kids how to swing, how to throw, how to push off of first base to steal second without getting their center of gravity too high. He was raised on a farm and did not have the luxury of a Play Ball event come through his area back in the day.

Tweet from @PlayBall: 1986 #WorldSeries hero Mookie Wilson joined in on the fun and dished out some autographs. #PlayBall

"It's all about baseball," Wilson said. "The more we can introduce kids to baseball and the sooner we can do it, the more we can attract those good athletes. Every kid out here is not going to be a baseball player, I realize that, but they still can enjoy the game.

"Baseball has been self-promoted for a long time. We have been very fortunate that baseball has succeeded in our present conditions. But our culture is changing, the world is changing, the competition for athletes is changing, so we have to introduce our sport to these kids sooner. The new program that they are implementing right now is really going to be a positive step."

Here are some of the other youth-related events happening around Game 4 (7:30 p.m. ET air time on FOX, 8 p.m. game time):

In celebration of this year's Season of the #Whiff campaign, Head & Shoulders is presenting $384,987 to RBI. Throughout the season, Head & Shoulders donated $1 for every strikeout across the league. Fans also got involved by tweeting #whiff throughout the season to secure additional donations for their favorite club's local RBI leagues.

Several members from each championship team of the 2015 RBI World Series is being recognized during pregame ceremonies. Teams include Miami Marlins RBI (senior baseball division), Dominican Republic North RBI (junior baseball division) and Cleveland Baseball Federation RBI (softball division).

Six members of the MLB Urban Youth Academies from around the country also are being recognized during pregame ceremonies. The members are their respective Academy's "Youth of the Year," and they include: Mario Romero from the MLB Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif.; Brandon Watson from the New Orleans MLB Urban Youth Academy; Cameron Lavergne from the Astros' MLB Urban Youth Academy; Deeirow Howard from P&G Cincinnati MLB Urban Youth Academy; Kevin Anderson from the Nationals' Youth Baseball Academy in Washington; and Justin Billups from the Phillies' MLB Urban Youth Academy.

Mitchell Jones, 15, a member of the Educational Alliance Edgies Clubhouse in Manhattan, will deliver the ceremonial first ball to the mound with former Jesse Orosco, who threw the last pitch of the 1986 World Series for the Mets. Jones is a sophomore at Urban Assembly Gateway School.

In addition, MLB created a new Play Ball spot that features the voice of Hall of Famer Babe Ruth talking about what a joy it is to "play ball." Watch here as Ruth's timeless words of wisdom still ring true today, about and for the game he loved so much.

"The only real game I think in the world, baseball," Ruth said. "You got to let it grow up with you."

Mark Newman is enterprise editor of Read and join other baseball fans on his community blog.