'PLAY BALL' pays tribute to Jackie in Times Square

April 16th, 2022

NEW YORK -- Times Square isn't the type of place that makes private accommodations. Usually. But when it's the 75th anniversary of Jackie Robinson's Major League debut, when he broke the color barrier and became MLB's first Black player, exceptions can be made.

Located on 44th Street and Broadway, directly outside the "Good Morning America" studios, pedestrian plaza is typically a hub of foot traffic from office workers and early rising tourists an hour after sunrise. But Friday morning, the area was blocked off in its entirety as MLB hosted a "PLAY BALL" baseball and softball activation with around 50 kids from Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs from all five NYC boroughs.

Underserved youth and their coaches from BedStuy Sluggers RBI (Brooklyn), DREAM Charter Schools (Manhattan), Castle Hill Little League & RBI (Bronx), Mid-Island Little League (Staten Island) and Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral of N.Y. (Queens) entered a makeshift diamond and engaged in rounds of soft toss, fielding drills and batting practice.

Several baseball dignitaries were on hand for the precursor event to the temporary renaming of 42nd Street and Broadway as Jackie Robinson Way, and they weren't afraid to join the action. There were also some surprise appearances as GMA's Michael Strahan conducted a live interview and "Black-ish" star Anthony Anderson, who was a guest of the show, made his way down for the festivities.

Former Yankees pitcher CC Sabathia -- co-founder of The Players Alliance -- jumped at the chance to return to the mound, tossing BP to the kids, who were all-too-eager to turn it into a Home Run Derby. On quite a few occasions, the netting placed around the diamond wasn't enough to keep some big drives in the park. The celebrations were particularly loud for any kid who managed to go yard against a Major Leaguer, who was probably familiar with the feeling from his own four children.

"It was pretty cool. I feel like the Jackie Robinson Day celebrations have been getting bigger and bigger, as they should," Sabathia said. "Being able to have a celebration in the middle of Times Square, have kids come out and play some baseball, rename the street, it's just fitting for the 75th anniversary.

"I do everything, philanthropy and all that, [for] my kids. They want to be out and be in communities and do everything that we can to help out. It's inspiring to me, so I'm just happy to be here and be able to celebrate Jackie's legacy."

In a lighthearted moment, former Yankees manager Joe Torre, who was watching from the wings, was summoned to relieve Sabathia of his pitching duties. And who else would come in to replace him but Hall of Fame closer Mariano Rivera?

The last Major Leaguer to wear No. 42, Rivera didn't break out his signature cutter, but he did dive into the significance of the Jackie Robinson Day celebration.

"Me being the last player to wear No. 42, it was not a challenge; it was a privilege. I just wanted to bring his legacy to a different level," Rivera said. "I wanted Mr. Jackie Robinson to be proud of me. Because what he did for us, it was amazing, and we just wanted to return what he did for us. We couldn't do nothing but play the game that he loved to play and do the best that we could, and I think we did that. So he's in heaven, looking down now and saying he's proud."

After the activation, the kids joined baseball's dignitaries at the press conference, where former Yankees captain and former Mets manager Willie Randolph spoke to them directly about Robinson's legacy. Wearing a throwback Brooklyn Dodgers cap, Randolph explained that he grew up "in the shadow of Ebbets Field," with family members who spoke glowingly about "the great Jackie Robinson."

"It was a tough neighborhood, so we were looking for heroes, people to aspire to be, and Jackie was perfect for that," Randolph said. "He looked like me, he played the same position like I did and all the people I was around were just so proud of what he meant to them. So for me to be standing here right now and to be part of this great ceremony on this day, I'm getting goosebumps, because I'm a living dream.

"I look at these kids and they don't really think that they can make it. You're looking at a person who thought the same way at one time, but I'm standing here today."

There was one more surprise in store for the kids before the morning was over. After being whisked away to MLB's flagship store on Sixth Avenue, which had been temporarily closed to the public in advance of their visit, they were treated to an all-expenses-paid shopping spree, alongside some of baseball's dignitaries.

It was quite the cherry on top of a special day for the kids. But it couldn't have been Jackie Robinson Day without them.

"They're the next generation; we've always got to add them," said Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., senior advisor to Commissioner Rob Manfred. "We are nothing without that generation. We've gotta teach them who these guys are who made an impact on our lives, so they understand who's going to make an impact on their lives."