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PLAY BALL brings baseball to London-area youth

MLB initiative gives many local kids chance to play sport for first time
@BryanHoch
June 28, 2019

LONDON -- Before the likes of Mookie Betts or Aaron Judge set foot on British soil this week, representatives from Major League Baseball's PLAY BALL initiative traveled to various schools in the greater London area, offering the opportunity to experience baseball on a casual participatory level. At each event, they

LONDON -- Before the likes of Mookie Betts or Aaron Judge set foot on British soil this week, representatives from Major League Baseball's PLAY BALL initiative traveled to various schools in the greater London area, offering the opportunity to experience baseball on a casual participatory level.

At each event, they encountered an overwhelming majority of children and teenagers who perhaps knew of the sport, but had never had a chance to hold a bat and feel the sensation of striking a ball. That is exactly why MLB believes it is important to hold events like the London Series, as well as continuing the larger PLAY BALL effort.

"This is great," said former big league outfielder Cliff Floyd, who participated in one such event on Thursday at Olympic Stadium. "I think when you talk about the teaching aspect of MLB, not just the stadium but bringing the whole experience over with PLAY BALL, all these things are teaching tools for us starting to grow it in different places."

Part of the conversion of Olympic Park into a baseball facility included the construction of "PLAY BALL Park," which serves as the hub for all youth-focused baseball and softball activity during the London Series. The space includes a temporary baseball/softball diamond, pitching tunnels, batting cages and baseball virtual reality portals.

Bennett Shields, MLB's senior vice president of baseball/softball development, estimated that 600 students had already had the opportunity to test their skills on the miniature diamond by mid-afternoon on Friday.

More will take part this weekend, as the Red Sox and Yankees play the first Major League contests across the pond.

"We're teaching them the basics," Shields said. "These are novice introductory-level baseball events, which is what our PLAY BALL events are designed to do. The goal of the PLAY BALL initiative is to give people who are new to the game their first baseball or softball experience in the hopes that it continues into something larger. From that sense, it's been a tremendous success."

On Friday morning, MLB hosted approximately 100 students from the Bobby Moore Academy for a baseball/softball playing experience, introducing informal and casual ways the game can be played anywhere. When Shields asked those students if they had played baseball before, he estimates that 90 to 95 percent did not raise their hands.

Joe Torre, MLB's chief baseball officer, said that it should be a victory to have the Red Sox and Yankees battle in the inaugural London Series.

"It will introduce our game," Torre said. "I don't think you can put a better stage show on than these two, because of their rivalry."

Over time, Floyd said that he believes that ventures such as PLAY BALL will help baseball to gain popularity in Europe.

"I do, and that's coming from being out for the last couple of days and being able to interact with the fans and know that they want it," Floyd said. "Just like football and basketball, these are things that you have to feel out and see what it really means to them. A lot of money is being spent for this spectacle to go on, but when you look at the historic aspect of this, that's the best part."

Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and Facebook.