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Salt Lake City Play Ball draws huge turnout

PCL president Rickey, MiLB president and CEO O'Conner in attendance
Special to MLB.com

For president of the Pacific Coast League Branch Rickey III, it was meeting Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese on the steps outside of a hotel in Philadelphia while his family was in town to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play.

For president and CEO of Minor League Baseball Pat O'Conner, it was Freddie Patek saying, "How you doin', kid?" as the two made eye contact while walking by the Columbus Jets' dugout on Little League Day.

For president of the Pacific Coast League Branch Rickey III, it was meeting Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese on the steps outside of a hotel in Philadelphia while his family was in town to watch the Brooklyn Dodgers play.

For president and CEO of Minor League Baseball Pat O'Conner, it was Freddie Patek saying, "How you doin', kid?" as the two made eye contact while walking by the Columbus Jets' dugout on Little League Day.

These memories have stuck with Rickey and O'Conner throughout the years, and that's exactly the reason why Major League Baseball, Minor League Baseball and the Salt Lake Bees teamed up to host a Play Ball event at Smith's Ballpark in Salt Lake City on Saturday morning.

Video: MiLB and youth baseball partner in Salt Lake City

"We're excited about the event and the initiative, in general," said senior vice president of youth programs for Major League Baseball Tony Reagins. "Being able to be here in Salt Lake City with the Bees and the support that they've given this initiative has been great. Not only the Bees, but the entire state of Utah, and the city, has been tremendous."

Tweet from @SaltLakeBees: Team pic �� #playball pic.twitter.com/57JevhUL0B

The event was a stem of the Play Ball initiative that MLB launched in 2015. This is the first year that MiLB has joined in on the efforts, and while it officially began last weekend in Oklahoma City, the turnout in Salt Lake, which included more than 500 youth participants, was a sight to behold.

"The bar has been set pretty high with the turnout here in Salt Lake with the organization," O'Conner said.

The event featured stations for the youth to participate in, including a home run derby, running the basepaths and agility drills. They also received instruction and guidance from players on the Salt Lake Bees, the University of Utah baseball team, the Weber State softball team and former professional baseball players like John Buck, a former All-Star from nearby Taylorsville High School.

The demand for the event in Salt Lake City was so high that the organizers created two sessions to accommodate everyone.

"It's important that we do this," Reagins said. "To be at communities around the country and giving kids the opportunity just to play our game, and to have an event like this where we're doing multiple sessions because of the demand and the interest of the young people here is great. That's what it's all about."

The hefty participation numbers shouldn't come as a surprise, though, as the Bees have always put in a concerted effort to host youth clinics, and it also has the largest kids club in Minor League Baseball in the Knothole Club.

Even so, the Bees have decided to ramp up their efforts. They announced before Saturday morning's event that the organization will be developing four new programs -- the Junior Bees, Salt Lake Bees Kids Club, Salt Lake Bees Baseball Academy and RBI Salt Lake -- that will "further connect with the community" and continue to grow the game.

Video: MLB wraps up Play Ball Weekend on Sunday

"It's going to be great, because each one of them does something a little different," said Bees general manager Marc Amicone. "We see one of our obligations to our community is to steward the game of baseball. We think it's important for us to help the game grow. This is the kind of thing that helps that."

The nationwide effort to get today's youth out and playing the sport of baseball can be hard work, but it becomes easier when the people in cities like Salt Lake City, and its surrounding areas, are willing to buy in.

"We'll know better down the road, but it's like planting seeds," Rickey said. "You have to go out and spend the time planting. You have to make sure all the ingredients are there for those seeds to sprout. And then later, you're going to start seeing those little shoots to pop up. Down the road, it could be a full-fledged field of whatever you planted. We're looking at the seeds and it's just wonderful to see going on."

Griffin Adams is a contributor to MLB.com.