A-Rod, Yanks join Manfred to 'Play Ball' with kids
Betances, Young also help launch MLB initiative focused on engaging youth players
NEW YORK -- On the same patch of grass that served as center field for the original Yankee Stadium, Alex Rodriguez, Dellin Betances and Chris Young gathered on Thursday afternoon with hopes of spreading some seeds for baseball's future.
The trio of Yankees joined Commissioner Rob Manfred, Hall of Famer Andre Dawson and Marlins stars Giancarlo Stanton and Dee Gordon at the Heritage Field site for the launch of "Play Ball," an initiative to encourage widespread participation in all forms of baseball activities among all age groups, especially youth.
"It's the most important thing we can do for our game and for the youth," Rodriguez said. "If you fall in love with the game at a very early age, we have an opportunity to build future stars, but we also have future fans. That's win-win."
Manfred and former big league infielder Harold Reynolds met with the group of local children before the big leaguers came over for their surprise appearances; Rodriguez played catch with some, while Stanton and Dawson participated in a Wiffle ball home run derby.
Young and Betances took turns pitching Wiffle balls to some of the children, and Gordon helped time a baserunning contest before some of the young players were introduced to stickball, a favorite game of the city streets from years gone by.
"The purpose of the 'Play Ball' initiative is just to remind people that you can engage with baseball without having nine guys on each team with uniforms and umpires," Manfred said. "There's lots of small games that are ways to play baseball that can be really fun for kids, and they can help you develop great skills."
Rodriguez's attendance was notable considering his recent history with Major League Baseball, which included a suspension for performance-enhancing drug use last year.
Rodriguez said that he was approached by Reynolds on behalf of the Commissioner's Office and had been "flattered" by the request to appear. Considering where the situation stood between Rodriguez and MLB one year ago, it has been quite a turnaround.
"There's not much about 2015 I would have believed. It's really been an incredible season," Rodriguez said. "The team's playing well, my teammates have welcomed me back, the Commissioner has welcomed me back. I'm really flattered and humbled to be in this position."
"I think Alex has tried really hard to make a smooth and successful re-entry into the game," Manfred said. "We appreciate the fact that he showed up here today."
Rodriguez's past was far from any of the young players' minds on Thursday as they raced through the grass, chasing Wiffle balls and delighting in the interactions with real-life big leaguers.
"This is great. I wish when I was a kid, I could do something like this; get around some ballplayers and interact with so many groups of kids," Young said. "They're all from different teams, and they're all meeting each other. You can make new friendships, meet new guys and go out and play the game together."
Young said that, as a child, he and his siblings would roll up a ball of aluminum foil and use a broken pool stick to play in the house when they weren't supposed to. Rodriguez recalled hitting beans with a broomstick, and Betances remembers playing "spongeball," a variation of baseball played against the back wall of his New York City apartment building.
"We'd draw a strike zone and pitch from 50 feet away," Betances said. "We had 3-on-3 tournaments, and whoever won got the trophy. I've played all these games."
It is that brand of passion and creativity for baseball that "Play Ball" hopes to organically inspire for a new generation.
"You don't need uniforms, you don't need 18 people, you don't need a formal field to play the greatest game in the world," Rodriguez said.