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Drive-thru Play Ball event a hit in Philly

@paul_casella
October 24, 2020

PHILADELPHIA -- Kids from across the area received some early treats on Saturday at a special drive-thru Play Ball event hosted by St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia. Former Phillies players Mickey Morandini and Milt Thompson were among those on hand to greet fans as they drove

PHILADELPHIA -- Kids from across the area received some early treats on Saturday at a special drive-thru Play Ball event hosted by St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Philadelphia.

Former Phillies players Mickey Morandini and Milt Thompson were among those on hand to greet fans as they drove into the parking lot where volunteers handed out bats and balls, as well as plenty of Phillies merchandise, including bobbleheads, headphones and headbands.

"This is just great," Morandini said. "Obviously, it's been a tough time for everybody the last five or six months. Nobody's been able to get outside, nobody's been able to play sports, kids aren't able to go to school for the most part. So we just want to get kids out here, get them a baseball, get them a bat and get them involved in baseball again.

"We want to get them outside, because we all know, when you stay inside, you do three things: You play video games, you watch TV and you eat. So we want to get these kids back outside and having fun. Hopefully, something like this helps with that."

The event was particularly special for Ron Duckett, whose father, Mahlon Duckett, played for the Philadelphia Stars in the Negro Leagues from 1940-48. Mahlon, who spent his entire life in the Philadelphia area and attended St. Matthew African Methodist Episcopal Church, was the last surviving member of the Philadelphia Stars when he passed away in 2015.

"This type of event is just so important, and it was so important to my dad," Ron Duckett said. "In his later years, he spent a great deal of his time just going around to the schools to talk to the young kids, not only about the history of baseball, but also about the history of this country and how baseball actually changed history, in terms of going from segregation to integration. I'm sure my dad is looking down on us now and just smiling that we're having this event."

Though Mahlon Duckett got his start playing baseball in the community and continued attending the same church during his playing days, the current pastor, Rev. Vernon Byrd, said many of the parishioners weren't even aware of his accomplishments.

"I hope [Mahlon] would be absolutely overjoyed -- I know I am," Byrd said. "A lot of people didn't know what a star he was, even the people in the church didn't know, because when he came to church, it was all about church -- it was never about him. But I think he'd be overjoyed since he, himself, spent so much time in the community. He'd be overjoyed that MLB, the Phillies and the church he loves are all coming together to support the community with this great day."

Though it was a drive-thru event, complete with masks and social distancing guidelines, kids were able to get their new bats signed by Morandini and Thompson.

Nor did it stop the legendary Phillie Phanatic from creating a scene.

The Phanatic came storming around the corner to cheers from children and immediately started with his antics, taking a seat on the hood of a car waiting for its free merchandise. He also pretended to have his foot run over by another vehicle and danced with some of the volunteers, all while sporting his specially designed mask. Of course, he was also helpful at times, guiding traffic into the parking lot and through the drive-thru lanes -- even if the directions weren't always accurate.

"All these kids coming through here, smiling and having a good time, this is just a great event," Thompson said. "When I was a kid, I remember growing up watching the game of baseball and falling in love with it. I was fortunate enough that my grandfather, my dad and my uncle barnstormed in the Negro Leagues, so I was always around the game and learned and continued to work hard and got better, and I was lucky enough to make it to the big leagues. It's just important for us to get these kids some exposure to this great game any way we can, and hopefully we're doing that here today."

West Philadelphia resident Demarious Harris confirmed as much, saying the event had an immediate impact on his 8-year-old son, Devon. Though the elder Harris grew up playing baseball, he said his son had never showed much of an interest until finally signing up for Little League earlier this year. Unfortunately, Devon's debut season came to an end after just a few weeks due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

"He's kind of been on the fence about whether he'd pick it back up next year, but we were driving past and he saw people in Phillies jerseys and wanted to pull in," Harris said. "Now, he's already talking about taking his bat over to the park when we get home today and he was just saying to me, 'Dad, I definitely want to keep playing baseball.' So yeah, things like this definitely make a difference, and I'm just really grateful for the Phillies and Major League Baseball being out here."

Paul Casella is a reporter/editor for MLB.com based in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter @paul_casella.