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Play Ball event a hit at Springfield College

Special to MLB.com

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- When a member of Springfield College's baseball team tossed a foam ball to Julian Suggs, the fourth-grader cranked the ball over the heads of his classmates.

"It's fun," Suggs, 10, of Springfield, Mass., said after rounding the bases of a small baseball diamond set up in the corner of Berry-Allen Field's outfield as part of an MLB Play Ball baseball clinic. "We actually get to be on the field!"

SPRINGFIELD, Mass. -- When a member of Springfield College's baseball team tossed a foam ball to Julian Suggs, the fourth-grader cranked the ball over the heads of his classmates.

"It's fun," Suggs, 10, of Springfield, Mass., said after rounding the bases of a small baseball diamond set up in the corner of Berry-Allen Field's outfield as part of an MLB Play Ball baseball clinic. "We actually get to be on the field!"

Suggs and about 150 other kids ran, hit balls and learned some basic baseball skills as part of MLB's efforts to bring baseball to underserved communities.

The elementary-school students hailed from Elias Brookings School and William N. DeBerry School. Both are in Springfield, a city in which nearly 30 percent of residents fall beneath the poverty line, nearly double the national poverty rate, according to U.S. Census data.

"A lot of these kids live in apartment buildings, and parks aren't safe," Katrika James, a fourth-grade teacher at Brookings, said while she watched kids shift from one skills station to the next. "I think what they're getting out of this is a once-in-a-lifetime chance."

MLB vice president of baseball and softball development David James said MLB began talks with Springfield College approximately a year ago about putting on a clinic for local kids.

Putting on a Play Ball event in Springfield can provide an entry point to the game that many kids at the event may not otherwise get, James said. But in addition to introducing them to baseball, the event put the youngsters on a college campus, which could get them thinking about their future.

"I think our responsibility is to create major league citizens," James said.

Berry-Allen Field itself is a testament to community engagement via baseball.

Springfield College, along with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, completed the $2.3 million Berry-Allen Field project in September. Construction of the field was part of the Ripken Foundation's youth development park initiative. However, Berry-Allen is its first youth development field that serves as a college and community baseball field.

Along with the kids and Springfield College students directing them, Red Sox mascot Wally the Green Monster jogged from station to station cheering batting practices, watching obstacle-course drills and doling out high fives to kids who usually only see him on TV.

The Red Sox Foundation spends much of its resources in Boston, said executive director Bekah Salwasser. But Red Sox Nation spans far outside the state capital's city limits, and encouraging fitness in kids is part of the organization's core mission, she said.

"You can hear the laughter, you can hear them screaming today," Salwasser said. "I think that's what's going to be everlasting for these young people."

It's great to see kids get the chance to participate in an MLB event and learn some basics about baseball, according to Calvin Hill, senior vice president for inclusion and community engagement at Springfield College. And the fact that it took place on a college campus is important.

Just less than 11 percent of Springfield residents over the age of 25 hold a bachelor's degree, less than half the statewide rate, according to Census data. Which is part of why Springfield College makes an effort to partner with public schools on programs that bring kids onto its campus.

"If they see themselves on a college campus, it gives them access to something they may not have," Hill said.

At an obstacle course station, Vincent Bryant, 11, paid no attention to the ominous clouds gathering above him as he hopped over miniature hurdles, weaved between cones and -- almost -- caught a foam ball before jogging back with the rest of his teammates.

Bryant, a fourth-grader at Brookings, wore seven souvenir Red Sox hats stacked on top of each other ("It makes me look taller," he said), but said he's more into art than sports. Despite his artistic leanings, though, he was thrilled for the opportunity to run around a college field.

Asked if he wants to go to college, Bryant smiled and gave a hearty nod. Asked what he wants to study, he replied, "I have no idea."

Sean Teehan is a contributor to MLB.com.

Boston Red Sox