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Arkansas Play Ball event aims to 'create smiles'

Trout among big names to have played for Mariners' Double-A affiliate, which hosted youth program
Special to MLB.com

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Dillon Hupp couldn't help but be jealous of some of the children roaming center field at Dickey-Stephens Park during Major League Baseball's Play Ball event Saturday.

That's where Mike Trout once played as a member of the Arkansas Travelers before becoming a six-time American League All-Star and the AL Most Valuable Player Award winner in 2014 and '16 with the Angels.

NORTH LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Dillon Hupp couldn't help but be jealous of some of the children roaming center field at Dickey-Stephens Park during Major League Baseball's Play Ball event Saturday.

That's where Mike Trout once played as a member of the Arkansas Travelers before becoming a six-time American League All-Star and the AL Most Valuable Player Award winner in 2014 and '16 with the Angels.

"We're standing here where Mike Trout played," said Hupp, who is the commissioner of the Little Rock RBI program. "They ran to first base where Mike Trout played. C.J. Wilson pitched on that mound. Ryon Healy with the Mariners just played on this field. We're talking about legit MLB guys that these kids can look up to."

More than 200 children, ages 5 to 18, participated in MLB's Play Ball event at Dickey-Stephens Park, the home of the Travelers, who are the Mariners' Double-A affiliate.

Saturday's event was a joint partnership between the Travelers, MLB, Little Rock RBI, USA Softball, the Boys & Girls Clubs in Little Rock and North Little Rock, and Pulaski County Youth Services in Little Rock.

"We really wanted to do something for the community," Hupp said. "For RBI, it fits right along with our mission that baseball is for everyone.

"If you're in this community, we want you to be able to play baseball, regardless of how much money your family makes or regardless of where you live and what your background is."

The children who participated Saturday got to take a home a free T-shirt and a bat and ball set. Saturday's event was free to the public.

Tony Reagins, the executive vice president of baseball and softball development for MLB, stressed the value of events such as Play Ball for communities throughout the United States.

"We think it's important to do these types of events to get kids introduced to the game and have a pleasant experience," Reagins said. "Hopefully they'll continue playing once they leave here."

Rusty Meeks, the Travelers' assistant general manager, said his team's relationship with the community and attempting to work with central Arkansas children is an important one.

"This is a huge part of what we do," Meeks said. "To be able to give back in the community, this is what it's about. These kids have smiles on their faces and enjoying the moment. It reminds me of why I love the game so much. This is a great opportunity to give back."

Arkansas is home for several past and present big leaguers, including Baseball Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson (Little Rock), five-time AL All-Star and former outfielder Torii Hunter (Pine Bluff), former AL Cy Young Award winner Cliff Lee (Benton) and current players Drew Smyly (Little Rock) and Blake Parker (Fayetteville).

Reagins, Meeks and Hupp all agreed that the state's baseball history can only help the children who took part in Saturday's event and who are currently playing in baseball programs throughout the state.

"It's extremely important for the kids to learn that history," Reagins said. "It's important to our long-term legacy, in terms of getting kids familiar with what has gone on before them. A lot of big leaguers have come out of this state. We're excited to be a part of being able to share that history with them and with the Travelers."

Over the next five to 10 years, Reagins wants to see continued growth with the Play Ball initiative.

"We want to go into underserved communities and stress the importance of playing baseball and softball," Reagins said. "When you're at events like this and some kids don't know how to stand in a batter's box, you can give them that experience. This is how you hold a bat, this is how you hold a baseball, this is how you put your feet in the batter's box. Within two minutes, we had kids hitting the ball over [the right-field fence at Dickey-Stephens Park]. So that's pretty exciting to see, within a short amount of instruction, the light kicked on. The reaction was a huge smile. If we can create those smiles over and over again, that's success to me."

Jeremy Muck is a contributor to MLB.com.