TAMPA, Fla. -- For countless Tampa Bay area youth baseball players, Saturday morning provided a unique opportunity to dazzle like a Major Leaguer.As part of the Rays' annual Play Ball Day festivities, kids ages 14 and under flocked to the fields of West Tampa Little League for two hours of
TAMPA, Fla. -- For countless Tampa Bay area youth baseball players, Saturday morning provided a unique opportunity to dazzle like a Major Leaguer.
As part of the Rays' annual Play Ball Day festivities, kids ages 14 and under flocked to the fields of West Tampa Little League for two hours of fun, aimed at promoting and expanding interest in the sport.
With the guidance of several knowledgeable volunteer instructors -- including Eckerd College Hall of Fame coach Bill Mathews -- young players participated in individual drills like learning how to field grounders, hitting the ball and throwing pitches to a catcher in the bullpen.
On the softball field, girls ran timed laps around the bases to see who could reach home the fastest. And for six visiting T-ball teams, a special tournament was set up for a glimpse at the full big league experience -- right down to having players' names individually announced by Rays radio broadcaster Neil Solondz behind the backstop.
"Baseball is just one of those sports where you need a lot of equipment and sometimes, a lot of money, especially with the growth of travel ball," said Jamal Knibbs, the Rays' community engagement and youth programs coordinator.
"To put on free events in communities where kids normally don't have the opportunity to play the game of baseball … and try to help them fall in love with the game at this young of an age, we hope to keep them. Maybe they'll shy away from the basketball and the football, and maybe latch onto baseball a little bit more."
While the event has traditionally been held at Tropicana Field, the installation of a new turf playing surface for this season forced organizers to find a different location. But after months of planning, getting together the teams and coaches and coordinating with city officials, Knibbs said they could not have asked for better turnout or weather, as expected rain was staved off until the afternoon.
"There's a lot that goes into this," Knibbs said. "We're just glad that the weather held up and the kids are out here smiling and having a great time."
In the future, the team hopes to continue expanding the event to other areas around the community to provide more local youth with the opportunity to participate.
"This exposure, in general, is something we feel like kids from that 5-to-7 T-ball age don't get," Knibbs said "They kind of latch onto other sports at that time. An event like this, we can expose them to the game of baseball.
"Hopefully, they fall in love with it at that early age, and it makes a day like this unforgettable."
The second annual Play Ball Weekend features a variety of youth engagement activities by nearly 200 Major League and Minor League clubs to highlight the fun of youth baseball and softball. It is a complementary program of the Play Ball initiative, designed by MLB to celebrate youth baseball and softball participation. MLB has provided clubs with more than 300,000 youth plastic bat and ball sets to distribute in both ballparks and at community events.
Many MLB clubs are hosting skills and physical fitness clinics as well as surprise "takeovers" of youth baseball and softball games or practices featuring appearances by Major League players, alumni, mascots, public address announcers and more. Activities will include kids participating in special news conferences, pregame meet-and-greets and catches with players, ceremonial first pitches, public address duties, lineup card exchanges, taking the field with players, postgame running the bases and more. Major League players, coaches and managers will wear Play Ball Weekend patches during the weekend's games, and players on home clubs will wear custom T-shirts during batting practice on the date of their club's activations.
Teams that are on the road Saturday and Sunday will host their Play Ball Weekend activities during another homestand.
Jeff Odom is a contributor to MLB.com.