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Play Ball Park hosts nation's top young teams

Love of game permeates All-Star Youth Classic Opening Ceremonies at downtown Miami field
MLB.com

MIAMI -- When Jobaun Williams' coaches told his Flint, Mich., team that it was headed to South Florida, he didn't believe them.

And yet, that's exactly where Williams -- along with more than 140 other youngsters who will participate in the upcoming All-Star Youth Classic -- found himself for the Classic's Opening Ceremonies at Play Ball Park at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami.

MIAMI -- When Jobaun Williams' coaches told his Flint, Mich., team that it was headed to South Florida, he didn't believe them.

And yet, that's exactly where Williams -- along with more than 140 other youngsters who will participate in the upcoming All-Star Youth Classic -- found himself for the Classic's Opening Ceremonies at Play Ball Park at Bayfront Park in downtown Miami.

The Classic is a friendly round-robin tournament that will feature 12 teams (ages 11-12) from across the country and Puerto Rico, competing from Friday through Monday at Grapeland Park and Fern Isle Park in Miami. Notable teams include Mattingly Charities RBI, which was founded by Marlins manager Don Mattingly, as well as the Stamford Sluggers, an all-girls baseball team.

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"It feels good being able to get out and play different teams from different states because it's not common for that to happen," said Williams, who began playing baseball this season and had never traveled further than Ohio until Thursday. "When I heard that we were going to Miami, I was like, 'I don't believe we're really going to Miami. They're just saying that to make us want to play.'"

Aside from the competition, players in the All-Star Youth Classic will stay on the University of Miami's campus and take part in a community service day at the beach. MLB covers their transportation costs, food and lodging, according to MLB vice president of youth programs David James.

Video: Play Ball Park opens during All-Star Week in Miami

"They'll be in the ballpark, going to Fan Fest, things like that," James said. "Separate from playing the games, this is really a life experience for them. Some of these kids have probably never been on a plane before. They're going to stay on a college campus for the first time. For them at that age to start thinking about, 'This is what it's like when I go to college,' that's really important as part of our goal of creating Major League citizens. They'll play games, but really, the hope is this is an experience, especially those kids who maybe never had an opportunity to go to a Major League game."

Tweet from @PlayBall: What a day!#PlayBall #ASGWeek pic.twitter.com/G6mGruxhuQ

Jennie Finch, a two-time Summer Olympics medalist, as well as representatives of USA Baseball and USA Softball, also participated in the festivities, which included batting practice stations. The Marlins were represented by team president David Samson. Nathan's Famous donated $20,000 worth of Sam's Club gift cards and memberships to be distributed evenly among the 202 RBI leagues, which include more than 120,000 young participants.

"When you cut the ribbon for Play Ball Park, it means All-Star Week has begun because the purpose of Play Ball and Commissioner [Rob] Manfred's initiative is we want kids to play baseball," Samson said. "And when you see kids from all over the country come into Miami, you realize why everyone does the work they do. They're all happy and excited to be here. They get to play ball and be a part of something that matters and getting off the streets and doing something productive. That to me is what matters."

Play Ball Park, which begins its second year after a successful run in San Diego in 2016, is a free interactive All-Star Week attraction created by Major League Baseball to provide opportunities for youth from ages 4-17 to play baseball and softball in a fun, welcoming setting. Play Ball Park measures about one acre in size and includes a youth-sized turf diamond featuring daily scheduled programming and open-play as well as batting tunnels, pitching inflatables, MLB sponsor activation zones and a new "Stickball Alley." Each young person who participates in Play Ball Park activities will receive a plastic or foam Play Ball bat & ball set made by Franklin and a Play Ball-branded T-shirt. Programming partners for 2017 Play Ball Park include USA Baseball, USA Softball, The Positive Coaching Alliance, the Marlins, Boys & Girls Club of America and generous Play Ball supporters such as Chevrolet, Scotts, Nathan's Famous and New Era.

Tweet from @PlayBall: Putting on a show In Miami. #PlayBall pic.twitter.com/3lmDybKYkz

Play Ball Park, which is accessible to children and parents through Tuesday, has free admission, after signing a required participation waiver.

It's part of All-Star festivities, which conclude on Tuesday. At 7:30 p.m. ET, tune in to the 2017 All-Star Game presented by Mastercard live on FOX, and during the game visit MLB.com to submit your choice for the Ted Williams Most Valuable Player Award presented by Chevrolet via the 2017 MLB All-Star Game MVP Vote. The 88th All-Star Game, in Miami, will be televised nationally by FOX, in Canada by Rogers Sportsnet and RDS, and worldwide by partners in more than 160 countries via MLB International's independent feed. ESPN Radio and ESPN Radio Deportes will provide national radio coverage of the All-Star Game. MLB.com, MLB Network and SiriusXM will also provide comprehensive All-Star Week coverage. For more information, please visit allstargame.com.

MLB launched the Play Ball initiative as the sport's largest collective effort to encourage young people to participate in baseball- or softball-related activities.

Tweet from @PlayBall: .@JennieFinch comes high and tight? Try to take her deep. #PlayBall pic.twitter.com/NSu2rIMWzT

"I couldn't be more thrilled for the Commissioner to really step in and invest in the youth -- whether it be men, women, girls, boys, girls' baseball, girls' softball," said Finch, who is in her first year as the MLB Youth Programs Ambassador. "This world would be a whole lot better of a place if we just got our kids outside playing ball. And that's what it's all about -- whether it be Wiffle ball, baseball, softball, anything. Just go outside and play. All those life lessons that the game brings, hopefully it can just spark that and reignite the love they have for the game with this weekend when they look back and bring it to their communities."

Video: Opening Ceremonies at Play Ball Park

Samantha Iglesias is proof of it. After playing for two years on the Marlins' RBI softball team, she is now in her fourth season as an assistant coach. When she played, there were just four clubs in the league. The number has since doubled.

"It's really great," Iglesias said. "I see all the things the Marlins in particular are doing now. Since I've been coaching, they added the Classic at Marlins Park, where the girls get to play on the field. And really, it's just an interesting program, and there's no other program like it that lets you have the big league experience at this age."

Christina De Nicola is a producer for MLB.com based in Miami.

Miami Marlins