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New Play Ball Park already a hit at LLWS

MLB.com

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- One home run after the next was launched onto the hill at the Little League World Series on Thursday, but it wasn't this year's tournament participants who were responsible. Behind Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums, kids of all ages lined up to hit long balls in the new Play Ball Park that opened just hours before the first pitch of the tournament.

Major League Baseball's Play Ball initiative is geared toward getting more kids playing the game. In order to pique the interest of fans, Play Ball Park was constructed with multiple stations where kids can come and hone their baseball and softball skills.

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- One home run after the next was launched onto the hill at the Little League World Series on Thursday, but it wasn't this year's tournament participants who were responsible. Behind Lamade and Volunteer Stadiums, kids of all ages lined up to hit long balls in the new Play Ball Park that opened just hours before the first pitch of the tournament.

Major League Baseball's Play Ball initiative is geared toward getting more kids playing the game. In order to pique the interest of fans, Play Ball Park was constructed with multiple stations where kids can come and hone their baseball and softball skills.

Kids rotated through a sliding and bunting station perfecting their techniques, an inflatable throwing accuracy station where the young players got four chances to throw a ball through a small target, and the fan-favorite home run derby station, where each child took turns hitting Wiffle balls beyond a fence while seeing who could hit the ball higher on the hill.

"We're trying to stay consistent to the overall Play Ball theme that you don't always have to play in an organized team structure," Major League Baseball vice president of youth programs David James said. "You see the home run derby, throwing for accuracy, just these little games -- our goal isn't necessarily, through Play Ball, to make big-time ballplayers, but to be sure we are generating baseball players.

"We really try to focus on kids that maybe don't get these types of opportunities. They've got somebody from USA Baseball, a national team coach, that's throwing [batting practice] to them while they hit and get instruction. Hopefully that makes them go back to mom and dad and, if they're not playing, make them go, 'Hey, I want to play.'"

Kids typically spent the majority of the time in the back of the Park participating in home run derby. Little Leaguer Michael Lekas hit one of the longest balls of the day, easily clearing the steep hill in front of him.

"It's fun to come here where you can just flick it out and it's not that big of a deal," Lekas said. "It's nice to have some stuff that's catering more to the little kids, but it's also fun for the big kids, where they are able to hit [balls] far here."

The instructors at each station consisted of USA Baseball and USA Softball players and coaches -- including hitting coach Bill Krejci, who has coached top-notch players like Manny Machado and Bryce Harper in his 22-year stint with USA Baseball.

"Well, that's the future of USA Baseball are these kids. If we don't get them engaged at a young age, we aren't going to have a Manny Machado or a Bryce Harper," Krejci said. "So when you have something like this, it creates some enthusiasm for baseball. These kids will keep this in their mind. These are our next future big leaguers."

Even former Major Leaguer and current MLB Network analyst Sean Casey, who was paying his first visit to the Little League World Series, couldn't hold back from participating in the fun.

"Oh yeah, home run derby [was my favorite], what are you nuts?" Casey said. "I was so excited. I was crushing some balls. I was so scared I was going to swing and miss, though."

Casey enjoyed the Little League World Series atmosphere sliding down Lamade Hill and touring the Little League Museum, but he also stressed the importance of adding the Play Ball Park.

"I think Major League Baseball is trying to encourage kids to get out and play ball," Casey said. "Get out and play baseball, play stick ball, just play any kind of ball -- kickball, whatever it is. I think what's cool is the kids get to get out here and interact and just play ball. I think that's the Play Ball initiative that Major League Baseball started. It's a great thing."

Mandy Bell is a reporter for MLB.com based in Baltimore.