Play Ball experience a hit for Queens community

August 28th, 2022

Alongside a large scale backpack and sneaker giveaway, the Greater Allen A.M.E. Cathedral in Queens, N.Y., hosted an MLB-sponsored, introductory-level baseball and softball event for children on Saturday.

Hundreds gathered for the interactive Play Ball experience -- part of the MLB initiative that encourages youth to play baseball and softball. Parents lined up to watch as their kids practiced beginner-level baseball and softball skills on a turf field down the block from the church.

MLB’s vice president of baseball and softball development, David James, attended the event and expressed how delighted he was that Play Ball has come to the Queens cathedral every year since 2020.

“We're really excited about how this relationship with them has grown over time,” James said. “Just the community feel of this and the relationships that we fostered with the church and with the community -- this one's really special to us.”

Children from Greater Allen also gathered during an MLB-sponsored Jackie Robinson Day celebration on April 15, commemorating the 75th anniversary of Robinson breaking baseball's color barrier. James said MLB is looking forward to continuing its relationship with the church, and mentioned that a new MLB program may be coming to the neighborhood soon.

Rodeena Stephens, director of communications at Greater Allen and co-organizer of the annual backpack giveaway event, said that 1,100 children were registered to receive a free backpack and 890 children were set to receive sneakers at the event. Families lined up early to pick up the items, and also partook in free food and music outside of the cathedral.

Afterward, many headed over to the Play Ball event. Stephens said that the event was a bit overwhelming at first due to the large turnout, but that she and the rest of the event’s organizers were happy with how it went. She also said that she has seen firsthand the impact that Play Ball has had on the Queens community.

“I just have to definitely give that shoutout to MLB because I think they added another exciting aspect to the day,” Stephens said. “You don't really get to see the baseball and the softball aspect in our community, so it's just really great to see the kids embracing it and learning about the sport.”

James Lowe -- known by some as “Coach Ballgame” -- is a Play Ball ambassador for MLB and led many of the activities offered at the activation. Lowe guided the kids through running bases, catching and hitting balls. He also told stories and gave many of the children nicknames like his own, encouraging them to feel comfortable on the field. Lowe said the work he is doing with MLB is attempting to counter a toxic trend he sees in the sports world -- one which focuses on winning and expensive equipment, rather than fun.

“A lot of kids are just walking away from tryouts and baseball because of the pressure and the overwhelming nature of it,” Lowe said. “If you just open up your arms and say, ‘come on in, this is a birthday party with bats and balls and fun,’ then I think baseball's got a bright future.”

More than 150 children registered for the event in advance, according to Pamela Rivers, an office operations employee and former co-lead of MLB’s Black Professionals Business Resource Group (BRG). Rivers, along with other MLB employees who volunteered at the event, passed out free Play Ball T-shirts and bat and ball sets, and made sure that parents had a comfortable place to sit in the shade as they watched their children play on the field. She said she finds joy in volunteering at MLB events and witnessing the impact they have on the communities they are introduced to.

“I like the fact that it gives kids an opportunity to participate in baseball and learn more -- and it's free, so that way anyone can join it,” Rivers said. “The kids are engaged. The parents are loving it, they're taking pictures of their kids. It's been a great success.”

The Play Ball initiative began in 2015 and has since expanded into an international effort to provide greater access to baseball and softball for youth and communities. The program, which is supported by USA Baseball and USA Softball, encourages gameplay as well as overall physical activity, socialization and health.