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Picture-perfect Play Ball event at Mt. Rushmore

In Rapid City, 'baseball is king'
MLB.com @Shannon__Ford

RAPID CITY, S.D. --- Historic Mount Rushmore served as the backdrop to Friday's Play Ball event, when kids from local communities took part in baseball activities at Floyd Fitzgerald Field, home to Post 22 Legion baseball.

The iconic sculpture that features Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, Mount Rushmore has stood for more than 75 years high above the Black Hills of South Dakota. The mountain is also home to one of the community's first baseball teams, comprised of a group of miners who inspired a community through sport and gave a lasting legacy enjoyed by generations of families and visitors from all over the world.

RAPID CITY, S.D. --- Historic Mount Rushmore served as the backdrop to Friday's Play Ball event, when kids from local communities took part in baseball activities at Floyd Fitzgerald Field, home to Post 22 Legion baseball.

The iconic sculpture that features Presidents George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Theodore Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln, Mount Rushmore has stood for more than 75 years high above the Black Hills of South Dakota. The mountain is also home to one of the community's first baseball teams, comprised of a group of miners who inspired a community through sport and gave a lasting legacy enjoyed by generations of families and visitors from all over the world.

"It started out as a Keystone [South Dakota] baseball team, but so many of them were working up on the mountain that [sculptor Gutzon Borglum] and his son, Lincoln, thought that it would be a great idea to have a baseball team for Mount Rushmore," said Don "Nick" Clifford, the last surviving member of the Mount Rushmore crew and baseball team.

At 96 years old, Clifford is inspired by the next generation of ballplayers who visited the monument and played at the impressive Floyd Fitzgerald Field on Friday.

"To have baseball diamonds and a place to play is really something to have in a small community," Clifford said.

Although baseball and South Dakota may not seem to go hand in hand, the sport is a staple in the community.

"Post 22 has a long tradition in Legion baseball, we've been at it since about 1957. And in Rapid City, baseball is king," said Mitch Messer, Post 22 American Legion coach and manager.

One of the success stories to come out of Rapid City and the Post 22 Hardhats program is former Major Leaguer Mark Ellis, who made his MLB debut in 2002 with the Oakland Athletics.

Video: KC@STL: Ellis shows off his range, records the out

"We don't have minor league sports other than hockey here," Ellis said. "We don't have major college sports. We don't have major league sports, obviously, so Legion baseball is kind of like, you grow up here and you want to play for the Legion team."

In his time playing shortstop for the Hardhats, Ellis took the 1993 team to a 70-5 record, winning the national title before moving on to play college ball at the University of Florida.

"Having these roots, coming from this town, the support that this town showed me throughout my career was tremendous," Ellis said. "And whether I'd be in Minnesota, Florida somewhere playing, New York, there was always someone from Rapid City to come by to say, 'Hi.'" 

The success stories of Clifford and Ellis bring smiles to the people of this community, where it is everyone's dream to play baseball at the highest level.

"What's special about Rapid City Baseball is just the tradition. We've had a lot of success. We've had guys go on and play at the highest level," said Messer, who is also a former Post 22 teammate of Ellis.

"It's just neat. And seeing kids out here playing ball and wanting to be a Post 22 Hardhat, that's what it's all about."

Shannon Ford is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Shannon__Ford.