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Kids get to Play Ball on Spring Training fields

Cubs host event in Arizona, while Pirates host in Florida
MLB.com @alysonfooter

MESA, Ariz. -- In the nearly three years since Commissioner Rob Manfred introduced the Play Ball initiative, designed to attract kids to the game of baseball, nearly every major city in the United States has been touched by the program.

On Saturday, that effort extended to Spring Training in both Florida and Arizona, where select fields normally reserved for Major Leaguers were opened to the kids, with the invitation to, simply, Play Ball.

MESA, Ariz. -- In the nearly three years since Commissioner Rob Manfred introduced the Play Ball initiative, designed to attract kids to the game of baseball, nearly every major city in the United States has been touched by the program.

On Saturday, that effort extended to Spring Training in both Florida and Arizona, where select fields normally reserved for Major Leaguers were opened to the kids, with the invitation to, simply, Play Ball.

At the Cubs' facility in Mesa, around 100 kids (and Clark the Cub) gathered at Sloan Park for a session of hitting, running, sliding and aiming for the fences in a free event, open to the public. There were only two requirements -- you have to be a kid, and you must want to play ball.

"We want to continue to get out to the grassroots level and encourage young people -- both boys and girls -- to play baseball or softball," said Tony Reagins, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of youth programs.

Tweet from @PlayBall: Some serious game faces. #PlayBall pic.twitter.com/GdoiedhBsu

This is the second consecutive year MLB hosted the special Play Ball events at the Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues. The Pirates also held an event at their facility in Bradenton, Fla.

• Kids run the show at Play Ball event with Bucs

Three Cubs players -- Kyle Hendricks, Kyle Schwarber and Mike Montgomery -- were briefly on hand to take in the festivities at Sloan Park. Their significant others were there as well, mingling with the kids and giving a special word or two of encouragement to the girls in attendance.

"We're out here to hang out with the kids, teach them baseball," said Emma Hendricks, wife of the Cubs starting pitcher. "It's so much fun to connect with them and show them that anybody can play baseball and have fun. Girls, boys, anyone."

Saturday's events in Florida and Arizona also served as a foreshadow of a growing partnership between Play Ball and the Major League clubs. Coming up this year and beyond, expect to see more events at big league ballparks, and more involvement with Major League players.

"It's important for us to have the support of the clubs and the support of the community," Reagins said. "The game is a community game, it's a family game. Our Major League organizations have given us somuch support over the years. The Play Ball initiative continues to grow and grow."

Tweet from @PlayBall: In Arizona with the @Cubs, meanwhile ... pic.twitter.com/HOlc7hs67n

The plan to involve the Major League teams extends to the players' families, too. The hope for MLB is that the wives' involvement that was on display in Mesa would continue to be a part of the experience.

"In my house, my wife has a lot of influence over what we do," Reagins said. "To be able to have the Major League wives here, and get them out here participating and encouraging young people to play, I think that goes a long way."

Stephanie Duchaine, who is dating Montgomery, understands how Play Ball events can help kick start a kid's baseball fandom at an early age.

"To see the looks on these kids' faces when they get to come out and play on the field and meet one of the guys, I feel it instills passion in them and helps them start young to develop a love for baseball," Duchaine said. "Seeing them in their uniforms, to see their excitement to get out here and play ball, it doesn't get much better than that."

Local college and high school players assisted with running the participants through the stations, and each kid received a bat and ball and a PLAY BALL-branded t-shirt and wristband to take home.

Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLBs.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.