NEW YORK -- On a sun-soaked Saturday morning on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, nearly 400 kids participated in baseball drills and games at the launch of Major League Baseball's five-borough Play Ball tour of New York City.At John V. Lindsay East River Park in the shadow of the Williamsburg
NEW YORK -- On a sun-soaked Saturday morning on the Lower East Side of Manhattan, nearly 400 kids participated in baseball drills and games at the launch of Major League Baseball's five-borough Play Ball tour of New York City.
At John V. Lindsay East River Park in the shadow of the Williamsburg Bridge, the kids smacked Wiffle balls in a home run derby, fielded ground balls and practiced baserunning on an expansive turf field. Most were celebrating their own Opening Day with the Lower East Side Our Lady of Sorrows (OLS) Little League -- the same league where Yankees reliever Dellin Betances got his start.
The morning began with an Opening Day parade to the field from the OLS church a few blocks away. When the kids arrived, they were greeted by MLB staff to receive Play Ball T-shirts and split into groups for drills. Then, in the afternoon, they kicked off their Little League season.
"It's a great opportunity for MLB to partner with Little Leagues, especially here in our backyard in New York," said MLB senior director of baseball development Del Matthews. "We're celebrating their Opening Day and also taking the kids through our Play Ball routine."
Play Ball is an MLB initiative to promote the love of baseball and softball among young people and communities. In addition to partnering with local leagues, Play Ball stresses the importance of more casual forms of the game -- like stickball and Wiffle ball, which have deep roots in New York City.
"That is one of the key tenets and the spirit of Play Ball -- you don't need nine players, you don't need nine gloves and a hard baseball," said Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs.
Although Play Ball has hosted events in New York City in the past, Saturday's was the first of its kind on the Lower East Side. Between April and September, Play Ball will hold similar events in the other four boroughs: the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island.
Tony Rivera, the president of OLS Little League, said MLB reached out to him to ask if Play Ball could use the fields at East River Park for the event. Rivera pointed out the potential conflict with his league's Opening Day, but ultimately, he was happy to collaborate with MLB on a morning event before the games began in the afternoon.
"I said, 'I like the idea. Why don't we collaborate and put something bigger together and just have a great time for the kids?'" Rivera said. "It's awesome."
Rivera added that he hopes events like this one -- as well as a May 12 clinic for OLS little leaguers run by Betances -- will help draw more kids to baseball in this neighborhood.
"It's about understanding that inner-city baseball needs to continue to expand," Rivera said. "We know about the Mets and the Yankees here, our hometown teams, but kids need to understand that there's an opportunity for them to be a part of this game and all the benefits that Little League baseball brings to you."
Those benefits were on display Saturday in the passion of young players like 10-year-old Christian Galarza, a two-way star for the Six Borough Mets of the OLS league.
"I play catcher, center field and pitcher," Galarza said, noting that his favorite position is catcher because he likes throwing out baserunners. Galarza's favorite thing about baseball? "That you get to bat," he said, adding: "And it's not all about winning, but it's about having fun."
Galarza's mother, Patricia Taveras, is a parent coordinator for the league and a first-year assistant coach. She was thrilled to see MLB focusing its efforts in New York and, in particular, on the Lower East Side.
"I'm really excited that they were able to bring something like this to our community," Taveras said. "Everybody talked about, 'Oh my gosh, this is the first time we're doing something here.' We need to do more things like this going forward."
Aaron Leibowitz is a contributor to MLB.com.