LOS ANGELES -- For 250 fourth- and fifth-graders, a Friday auditorium assembly marking Jackie Robinson Day turned into a memory of a lifetime.To the surprise of the young Dodgers fans attending Commonwealth Elementary School, Robinson's daughter, Sharon, led a group that included Dodgers players Carl Crawford and Trayce Thompson and
LOS ANGELES -- For 250 fourth- and fifth-graders, a Friday auditorium assembly marking Jackie Robinson Day turned into a memory of a lifetime.
To the surprise of the young Dodgers fans attending Commonwealth Elementary School, Robinson's daughter, Sharon, led a group that included Dodgers players Carl Crawford and Trayce Thompson and three-time softball Olympic gold medalist Leah O'Brien-Amico in conducting a "Play Ball" clinic, a joint initiative between MLB and USA Baseball, and the sport's largest effort to encourage participation in both formal and casual baseball activities.
:: Jackie Robinson Day coverage ::
The morning event, in partnership with the Dodgers and the Dodgers Foundation, was part of a day-long celebration of Jackie Robinson Day, marking the 69th anniversary of the legendary Hall of Famer breaking baseball's color barrier in 1947.
"This is all about having fun," said Robinson, MLB's Educational Consultant. "We are at a school, reminding kids that education is the priority. But we're having fun, teaching basic skills, on a day when we are paying tribute to my father and the achievements of the past as we continue to contribute to his legacy."
Robinson, Crawford, Thompson and O'Brien-Amico briefly addressed the students, before they were turned loose on the playground to participate in hitting, fielding and running drills.
"When I think of Jackie Robinson, I think of breaking down barriers," O'Brien-Amico told the students. "If you have the talent and the passion, you can achieve great things. Find what you love to do, and you can break down barriers like Jackie Robinson."
Crawford, a graduate of Houston's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, said he "loves being in front of kids that love baseball," but cut his speech short so the games could begin, "because Jackie Robinson would want us to play baseball."
Thompson -- son of former NBA star Mychal Thompson, brother of NBA star Klay Thompson and a graduate of MLB's Urban Youth Academy in Compton -- said Friday's event is a reminder of "where we are and why we got here."
"My brother and I were just talking about how much fun we had in Little League," Thompson said said. "Seeing these kids and the smiles on their faces is very refreshing."
MLB senior vice president of youth programs Tony Reagins said the Play Ball initiative brings traditional and nontraditional forms of baseball to school kids.
"We want to get the kids excited about playing the game, and want their first interaction with baseball to be positive," said Reagins, the former general manager of the Angels. "It can be playing catch or a home run derby. You don't need 18 players and an umpire to play the game. The kids walk away from this with a keepsake [plastic bat and Wiffle ball] and hopefully good memories that will make them more engaged in the sport with a positive connection. The goal is to develop a lifelong fan.
"Tying in to Jackie Robinson Day, having Sharon here, strengthens our relationship with the Breaking Barriers program, where we mentor kids, and in our Urban Youth Academies. It all ties together. But it also comes back to one thing I've found, that if you put a bat and ball in a kid's hands, the immediate reaction is a smile."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com.