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Reagins sees potential of MLB4 tournament

MLB's executive VP of development upbeat about future of sport
MLB.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When watching college baseball, fans have the opportunity to see the potential future stars of MLB before they make it to the big leagues.

During this weekend's inaugural MLB4 collegiate baseball tournament, the league's goal has been to expose the college level to a wider audience in an effort to continue to grow the sport. And Tony Reagins, MLB's executive vice president of baseball and softball development, has been pleased with the event.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- When watching college baseball, fans have the opportunity to see the potential future stars of MLB before they make it to the big leagues.

During this weekend's inaugural MLB4 collegiate baseball tournament, the league's goal has been to expose the college level to a wider audience in an effort to continue to grow the sport. And Tony Reagins, MLB's executive vice president of baseball and softball development, has been pleased with the event.

"It's awesome to be able to have the universities that we have representing," said Reagins, who was at Salt River Fields on Friday for the first two games of the tournament. "It's awesome."

The action continued at the MLB4 tournament Saturday with a day matchup between Vanderbilt and Cal State Fullerton (Vanderbilt won, 14-9), followed by a night contest between TCU and Virginia (TCU won, 9-4).

Tweet from @VandyBoys: There we go. Make it, 2-0.This one belongs to the Dores.#VandyBoys 14, Fullerton 9 pic.twitter.com/EdMmDvGG6W

Several players participating in this weekend's tournament could be joining an MLB organization as soon as this summer. TCU starter Nick Lodolo (MLB Pipeline's No. 16 2019 Draft prospect) and Vanderbilt outfielder JJ Bleday (No. 24) are among the top players in the tournament.

Vandy's Bleday standing out in MLB4 tourney

"It's important to make the connection that college baseball is the pathway to professional baseball," Reagins said. "With the Draft, 70 percent of the players being selected, almost on an annual basis, are from the college ranks, so to be able to reinforce that connectivity and then show young people around the country that college baseball is an important part of what we do at the higher levels is extremely important."

The four teams in the MLB4 tournament are a strong example of some of the country's best programs. Vanderbilt is No. 1 in the D1Baseball Top 25 rankings, while TCU (No. 19) and Cal State Fullerton (No. 25) are also ranked. Since 2014, all four programs have made multiple College World Series appearances.

"That was part of the intrigue with being able to put this together with quality programs that have performed well over time, consistently over time," Reagins said. "To be able to bring them together here in Arizona, great facility, it's been outstanding."

Video: Reagins discusses importance of baseball tournaments

Reagins is particularly familiar with one of the programs -- Cal State Fullerton. He graduated from the university in 1991 before going on to work for the Angels from 1992-2011, including stints as director of player development (2002-07) and general manager (2008-11).

In 2015, Reagins joined the Commissioner's Office as senior vice president of youth programs. Then he was promoted to his current role in '18. 

"That's always good to be able to see Coach [Rick] Vanderhook and what he's done over time with the program, and the history of baseball at Cal State Fullerton is rich," Reagins said. "We're excited to have them as a part of this initiative."

And the participating teams have been appreciative of this opportunity to open their seasons in special fashion.

"This is amazing," Vanderhook said, "what they did for all of us to allow us to put this thing together, putting us at this facility, which is super nice, and just the whole environment of the weekend."

Jake Rill is a reporter/producer for MLB.com based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JakeDRill.

Vandy, Fullerton open inaugural MLB4 with wins

MLB.com

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Veteran infielder Ryan Flaherty made the roughly 40-mile trek from the Indians' Spring Training facility in Goodyear to Salt River Fields on Friday to support Vanderbilt, his former college team, in the inaugural MLB4 college baseball tournament.

The Commodores have been one of the top programs in the country in recent years; they're well represented in many MLB organizations and Flaherty isn't shy about sharing how he feels Vanderbilt compares to other schools.

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. -- Veteran infielder Ryan Flaherty made the roughly 40-mile trek from the Indians' Spring Training facility in Goodyear to Salt River Fields on Friday to support Vanderbilt, his former college team, in the inaugural MLB4 college baseball tournament.

The Commodores have been one of the top programs in the country in recent years; they're well represented in many MLB organizations and Flaherty isn't shy about sharing how he feels Vanderbilt compares to other schools.

"It's the best program in the country," Flaherty said.

Opening their season against Virginia at the Spring Training home of the D-backs and Rockies, the Commodores showed just why Flaherty -- and other former Vandy players -- are comfortable making that statement. Vanderbilt pounded out 17 hits in a 15-9 win in the MLB4 tournament's MLB Network showcase game.

Tweet from @MLBNetwork: The @VandyBoys win 15-9! #MLB4 pic.twitter.com/V1xdQxm4kC

Flaherty is one of numerous former Vanderbilt standouts now playing in MLB. David Price (Red Sox), Walker Buehler (Dodgers), Sonny Gray (Reds), Dansby Swanson (Braves), Carson Fulmer (White Sox), Mike Minor (Rangers), Tony Kemp (Astros) and Pedro Alvarez (Marlins) are among the 13 former Commodores that made an MLB appearance in 2018.

After playing at Vanderbilt from 2006-08, Flaherty has played seven Major League seasons with the Orioles and Braves. The infielder, who signed a Minor League deal with the Indians last week, said he watches Commodores games as frequently as possible.

"Whether it's players, front office, coaches, every affiliate, every organization has Vanderbilt people in it, so it's something I'm definitely proud of, for sure," Flaherty said. "There are a lot more televised games than when I played there, so I get to watch them."

Video: VAN@UVA: Corbin discusses Vandy's upcoming season

The Commodores have made it to the NCAA Tournament every year since 2006, a stretch that included back-to-back appearances in the College World Series in '14 and '15. They beat Virginia to win the national championship in 2014, but lost to the Cavaliers the following year.

Virginia has also had success in sending players to the Majors. Current big leaguers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Zimmerman (Nationals), Chris Taylor (Dodgers), Mark Reynolds (Rockies), Brandon Guyer (White Sox) and John Hicks (Tigers) are former Cavaliers.

Vanderbilt, which was ranked No. 1 in the preseason D1Baseball Top 25, scored at least one run in each of the first four innings Friday night, which included eight in the fourth. Austin Martin, JJ Bleday (MLB Pipeline's No. 24 2019 Draft prospect) and Ethan Paul each had three hits.

"You never know how the first game's going to go. You're confident, but you never know," said Paul, who homered and drove in three runs. "We all got some barrels and we all found some grass, so we're excited about that."

While the four teams (Vanderbilt, Virginia, TCU and Cal State Fullerton) participating in the MLB4 tournament will go back to playing at college campuses after this weekend, it may not be long before some of these standouts are back training and playing at MLB facilities.

As the MLB4 tournament is growing the sport by exposing college baseball to a wider audience, it also gives these players a chance to see where their career could head after college.

"At Vanderbilt, Coach [Tim] Corbin has done a great job creating a culture here, and we try to just hold up those standards so that we can represent ourselves as best as we can," Paul said. "That's definitely a motivation for everyone in here. I'm sure I can speak for a lot of guys that they want to play at the next level."

Tweet from @MLBDevelops: Today, big-time college ball. Tomorrow, the pros?@FullertonBSB and @TCU_Baseball kick off #MLB4, a showcase tournament hosted by @MLB! pic.twitter.com/XCLz05eGcX

Cal State Fullerton tops TCU in opener
Friday's action started with a matchup between two ranked teams -- No. 19 TCU and No. 25 Cal State Fullerton.

Although TCU had Nick Lodolo (MLB Pipeline's No. 16 2019 Draft prospect) on the mound, it was Cal State Fullerton starter Tanner Bibee who pitched his team to victory. Bibee tossed six scoreless innings, working out of several tough jams, to help the Titans win, 2-0, in both teams' season opener.

Lodolo also fared well, allowing two earned runs over five innings. He gave up a leadoff home run to Daniel Cope in the second and an RBI single to Sahid Valenzuela in the third.

Bibee combined with relievers Gavin Velasquez and Michael Weisberg for the shutout. TCU went 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position, leaving 12 runners on base.

"It was exciting, it was unreal," Bibee said of the Titans' season-opening win. "It just shows us that everyone needs to give us respect. We're young, but we're going to compete and we're going to grind you every single pitch. This competition is definitely something special."

Jake Rill is a reporter/producer for MLB.com based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JakeDRill.

Watley debuts in new role at clinic for kids

Olympian is MLB's youth softball ambassador
MLB.com

COMPTON, Calif. -- In spite of uncustomary Southern California rain in Saturday's early hours, Natasha Watley excelled in her first appearance as Major League Baseball's youth softball ambassador.

An Olympic gold medal-winning infielder, Watley hosted two events at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton in recognition of National Girls and Women in Sports Day (observed this year on Feb. 6).

COMPTON, Calif. -- In spite of uncustomary Southern California rain in Saturday's early hours, Natasha Watley excelled in her first appearance as Major League Baseball's youth softball ambassador.

An Olympic gold medal-winning infielder, Watley hosted two events at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton in recognition of National Girls and Women in Sports Day (observed this year on Feb. 6).

"I'm hoping that we can get as many girls playing softball as possible," Watley said of what she hopes to accomplish in her position. "My hope is to just double the numbers, increase the numbers, and to get as many girls activated in the game of softball as we possibly can."

In the morning, nearly 200 children aged 4-13 participated in a Play Ball clinic, which featured drills for batting and fielding, an agility course and a home run derby. In the afternoon, about 100 girls aged 12-17 attended a joint baseball and softball clinic, where they took part in more advanced hitting, pitching and fielding drills. Both clinics were free for participants.

Tweet from @PlayBall: #PlayBall ambassador @natashawatley29 in action at our event in Compton! pic.twitter.com/3NsvKq22Ko

These were the latest events in MLB's efforts to increase youth participation in softball. Last week, softball legend Jennie Finch hosted a similar clinic in New Orleans.

"MLB's support behind softball comes at such a great time," said Watley, a Southern California native from Irvine and former member of the UCLA softball team. "There's so much hype behind the sport right now, especially with softball being back in the Olympics. … MLB coming in and pushing girls forward, it's such a powerful movement to be a part of."

Sahvanna Jaquish, a catcher/infielder for the USA Softball Women's National Team, was on hand to assist with the coaching and echoed Watley on the impact that clinics can have.

"I think it's so important that MLB is helping us out," said Jaquish. "I just thank them for activities like this, where we can show girls that women are important, and that MLB cares about us." 

Sharon Robinson tours KC's youth academy

While softball took center stage Saturday, there were also activities geared specifically for girls who prefer baseball. Tamara Holmes, a former outfielder for the USA Baseball Women's National Team, helped with the baseball side of the afternoon clinic and stressed the importance of ensuring girls have continued access to organized baseball instruction.

"Still to this day you find too many young girls who play baseball and may be the only one in their Little League," said Holmes. "This is really going to help us raise awareness and show that there's a lot of opportunities for girls to play baseball."

Tweet from @PlayBall: Good vibes only. #PlayBall pic.twitter.com/rtBYwbjxv0

Whether the participants of Saturday's clinics choose to continue on the path of playing baseball or softball, the goals of such events are clear: To show that playing is a fun, rewarding experience, and that no one should be limited by lack of opportunity.

"With kids of these ages, they're just out here having fun and getting exercise and enjoying themselves," said Holmes. "In the end, I hope that they continue to love the game of baseball and continue to play, especially with the young girls."

"The one thing that I hope that they take away is just to have fun," said Watley. "I know as we get older and we get more into baseball, softball, it becomes more of a stressful sort of thing, but this is the moment that you just remember why you started playing. This is what I want them to remember when they start to get more involved into the game."

Sarah Wexler is a reporter for MLB.com based in Southern California.

Sharon Robinson tours KC's youth academy

MLB educational programming consultant in town for centennial of her father's birth
Special to MLB.com

KANSAS CITY -- Sharon Robinson walked past the entrance mural that includes a portrait of her father, Jackie Robinson, as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. She moved on to the Don and Jean Wagner classroom, and she made subsequent stops at the athletic training room and the spacious indoor baseball diamond, with its bright green turf.

It was all part of Robinson's guided tour around the Kansas City Royals MLB Urban Youth Academy on Friday morning, and the experience left the MLB educational programming consultant thoroughly impressed.

KANSAS CITY -- Sharon Robinson walked past the entrance mural that includes a portrait of her father, Jackie Robinson, as a member of the Kansas City Monarchs. She moved on to the Don and Jean Wagner classroom, and she made subsequent stops at the athletic training room and the spacious indoor baseball diamond, with its bright green turf.

It was all part of Robinson's guided tour around the Kansas City Royals MLB Urban Youth Academy on Friday morning, and the experience left the MLB educational programming consultant thoroughly impressed.

"It's beautiful," Robinson said. "The facility is gorgeous and has everything a boy or girl could want, everything a parent could want for their child."

Tweet from @sharonarobinson: Great visit, wonderful resource for kids, parents, community! Loved emphasis on developing whole child as well as high quality baseball training and exposure to careers beyond the playing field! https://t.co/JM1uCjy4ag

For Robinson, who was in Kansas City as part of the yearlong celebration of the centennial of Jackie Robinson's birth, the only way the morning could have been better was if the facility had been filled with youngsters from Faxon Elementary School. Robinson had been scheduled to speak to those students, but treacherous road conditions in the Kansas City area forced a cancellation of the school's anticipated trip to the Academy.

Robinson was looking forward to meeting the elementary school students and helping them craft essays for a writing competition known as Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life. Breaking Barriers is a bilingual program highlighted by an essay contest that encourages students from the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico to describe how they have overcome personal barriers through the example of Jackie Robinson. The overall Breaking Barriers program provides a character-education curriculum for teachers to educate their classrooms about Jackie Robinson and the values he demonstrated throughout his life, particularly his journey in breaking Major League Baseball's color barrier.

The essay contest, founded by Sharon Robinson and administered by MLB and Scholastic, will reward the Grand Prize winners in each age group (grades 4-6 and 7-9) with trips to the 2019 MLB All-Star Game in Cleveland and the 2019 World Series, respectively.

Had Robinson been able to address the Faxon students, her message for constructing those essays would have been straightforward.

"The Breaking Barriers program is about teaching kids that obstacles or barriers are a part of life," Robinson said. "So, we're going to give you strategies that were helpful for my father on and off the field. And then, by writing it down, it allows you to see for yourself that there is a process and you will use that same process throughout your life.

"By writing it down, you see whatever steps you took to get over whatever barrier you are writing about at age 8. By age 50, you will still have to take yourself through those steps, too. It's building confidence. It's entering each of those obstacles confident that you can overcome them because you have done it before."

Robinson is scheduled to return to Kansas City in June when she will be honored by the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and she hopes arrangements can be made for some interaction with Kansas City area youth at that time. Another element of Friday's cancelled program was the "Play Ball" event. Students would have been treated to a series of fun-focused and informal baseball and softball stations where they would have enjoyed Home Run Derby, baserunning games and more.

The "Play Ball" events have been designated for cities with a connection to Jackie Robinson's history and legacy. Besides Kansas City, where Robinson played for the Monarchs of the Negro Leagues in 1945, the "Play Ball" events will include Montreal (in March) and Pasadena, Calif. (in September). Robinson played for the Montreal Royals, a Brooklyn Dodgers' farm team. His family was raised in Pasadena.

The Royals' organization was happy to welcome Robinson to the Academy for a tour of a facility that club officials feel will continue to be a special part of the Kansas City community.

"This Academy is a platform to grow leaders and bridge the gap between the urban, suburban and rural parts of Kansas City," said Royals general manager Dayton Moore. "I believe Kansas City is and will continue to be a great example of what communities should be like and how people should work together. I think this is a major stepping stone in that direction."

Robert Falkoff is a contributor to MLB.com.

Kansas City Royals

Play Ball educates, inspires at New Orleans clinic

Event held in celebration of National Girls and Women in Sports Day
Special to MLB.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Nothing, not a light morning fog or chilly temperatures, was going to dampen the enthusiasm of a group of about 350 girls and boys who gathered Saturday to learn some baseball skills and celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day at the MLB Youth Academy in New Orleans East.

Former USA Olympian pitcher and gold medalist Jennie Finch welcomed the children, ages 4-13, and their parents at the Wesley Barrow Stadium facility to take part in a morning MLB Play Ball event that provided station-by-station instruction.

NEW ORLEANS -- Nothing, not a light morning fog or chilly temperatures, was going to dampen the enthusiasm of a group of about 350 girls and boys who gathered Saturday to learn some baseball skills and celebrate National Girls and Women in Sports Day at the MLB Youth Academy in New Orleans East.

Former USA Olympian pitcher and gold medalist Jennie Finch welcomed the children, ages 4-13, and their parents at the Wesley Barrow Stadium facility to take part in a morning MLB Play Ball event that provided station-by-station instruction.

That 90-minute session was followed in the afternoon by a first-of-its-kind two-hour baseball and softball clinic designed for older adolescent females.

"I was blown away," said Finch, who is entering her third year of serving as MLB's youth softball ambassador. "I had goosebumps all over my body because these girls were just balling it up.

"Normally some of the girls, they don't know how to grab a bat, they don't know how to swing, but these girls prove just how far we've come and what we're doing."

The morning session was broken into seven different stations of instruction that emphasized the fun part of participation while covering the skills of throwing, fielding, hitting and baserunning, followed by a home run hitting contest. The afternoon work for the older athletes was directed more at enhancing skills and fundamentals.

As a mother of two boys ages 12 and 8 and a 6-year-old daughter, Finch said she encourages parents to get their children involved and be active themselves.

"I know firsthand the impact that sport has had on my life," Finch said. "The statistics are incredible of what sports do. The women who are CEOs, probably 90 percent of them played sports and were collegiate athletes even at that. So we're seeing what difference it makes for young girls to be involved in sports and to go for it.

"So let your daughter or boy try whatever sport they want to. There are so many avenues and so many ways and so many sports out there, too. We just need our kids active. We need them outside, having fun, playing ball."

Chris Daigrepont, a girls softball and travel ball coach from nearby Metairie, La., brought his 11-year-old daughter, Aubrey, to the event and gushed about the positives he witnessed.

"This is the second event like this that we've been to and it's great. The girls love it," said Daigrepont, adding that his daughter already has expressed a desire to play softball through college and possibly beyond. "The girls learn while having fun. It's not a strict practice where it's regimented. They're out here, they're having fun. They get to meet a superstar like Jennie Finch. Their eyes light up."

Kim Ng, MLB's senior vice president of international baseball development, was equally excited by the atmosphere she witnessed and the potential ramifications it may hold in future years.

"Right now, you're looking at the future leaders of Major League Baseball and other sports and other industries as well," Ng said. "This is really what we're trying to do for these young girls, to provide that opportunity for those that already have it and also [provide] for those who maybe live in some underserved areas as well, and make sure that we get out that message to them as well."

"My heart explodes because I know firsthand the sisterhood and brotherhood of softball and baseball," Finch said. "There are so many similarities. Yes, it's different, but there are way more similarities than there are differences.

"So to be able to come out here and celebrate with these young girls who aspire to have huge dreams and are playing the game that they love, whatever it is, whether it be softball or baseball, it is so nice. We can collaborate. We can work together and we can celebrate together."

Major League Baseball has another similar Play Ball event accompanied by a baseball/softball clinic targeted for girls only scheduled for Compton, Calif., this coming weekend, as MLB sandwiches a pair of weekend celebrations around Monday's official 33rd annual National Girls and Women in Sports Day.

"[MLB's] message to them," Ng said, "is that whatever it is in life, whether it's out here on the field or it's off the field, that they need to work hard. We need discipline and they should always seize these opportunities and never let anyone tell them that they can't."

Of the relevance of National Girls and Women in Sports Day, Finch expressed gratitude for those who have "paved the way" for girls who are just now coming of age.

"These girls watch college softball on TV and they know there is a professional league and they know that the Olympics are coming back into play," Finch said. "To see Major League Baseball supporting our sport and girls baseball as well, you can see firsthand the benefit of what's happening at the grassroots levels and the impact that sports has on young girls especially. It's incredible."

Mike Strom is a contributor to MLB.com.

Reds host baseball, softball coaches' clinic

Cincinnati Reds

CINCINNATI -- The Reds hosted 173 baseball and softball coaches on Jan. 27 at the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy for a coaches' education and training program.

The event was held with support from Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association and the American Baseball Coaches Association. Former Reds player Dmitri Young, two-time U.S. softball Olympic gold medalist Crystl Bustos, Eastern Kentucky University's baseball hitting coach Jayson Langfels and hitting guru Howard Carrier were all on hand as instructors.

CINCINNATI -- The Reds hosted 173 baseball and softball coaches on Jan. 27 at the P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy for a coaches' education and training program.

The event was held with support from Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association and the American Baseball Coaches Association. Former Reds player Dmitri Young, two-time U.S. softball Olympic gold medalist Crystl Bustos, Eastern Kentucky University's baseball hitting coach Jayson Langfels and hitting guru Howard Carrier were all on hand as instructors.

They offered hitting tips and drills to the coaches as additional tools to aid the development of their youth baseball and softball players. Coaches were encouraged to take notes while listening, volunteered in demonstrations and engaged in a Q&A session with the special guests during the two-hour clinic.

Langfels was selected in the 16th round of the 2010 Draft by the Colorado Rockies and made it to Double-A. He is also a member of EKU's all-century team. Carrier has more than 30 years of experience as an instructor, including as a coach for Bustos. He has coached more than 5,000 players in his lifetime and has manufactured hitting tools that have been implemented by several MLB teams.

The instructors were eager to share their knowledge with the coaches. Young, a two-time All-Star over his 13 Major League seasons, took a red-eye flight after serving as a coach at Reds Fantasy Camp in Goodyear, Ariz., in order to attend the clinic. He also serves as a special instructor for MLB youth programs and has helped teach in various MLB developmental programs.

"I truly enjoyed the experience of having a coaches' clinic with this group," Young said. "It's not always what you tell the youth but how to give the information. Teaching the youth the right way is important and having them enjoy the experience creates positivity and confidence."

Bustos was equally excited to share her wisdom. One of Carrier's many pupils over the years, she lauded the program's integration of baseball and softball.

"This event was by far one of my favorites," said Bustos, a 2018 National Softball Hall of Fame inductee. "It was well organized and ran smoothly. I especially like how it was put on with baseball and softball instruction happening at the same time. So many people try to separate our sports, but not this event. I love it! A simultaneous baseball and softball focus at the Reds Youth Academy is the future of our sport. We need to be working together, not apart."

Cincinnati Reds

Puig takes in Cincy, visits Urban Youth Academy

Reds' new outfielder happy to land with hitting coach Ward
MLB.com

CINCINNATI -- New Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig wasn't going to let subzero temperatures keep him from warming up to his new city. The Cuba native and Los Angeles resident was busy Wednesday getting to know his surroundings.

"It's not that cold. It's all mental, you know," Puig said. "If you put it in your [mind], it's going to be cold, bro. People say this is the most cold in all of history, but I'll be fine. It's not going to be like that during the season."

CINCINNATI -- New Reds outfielder Yasiel Puig wasn't going to let subzero temperatures keep him from warming up to his new city. The Cuba native and Los Angeles resident was busy Wednesday getting to know his surroundings.

"It's not that cold. It's all mental, you know," Puig said. "If you put it in your [mind], it's going to be cold, bro. People say this is the most cold in all of history, but I'll be fine. It's not going to be like that during the season."

Puig, who was acquired in a seven-player trade with the Dodgers in December, was in Cincinnati to look for a place to live and stopped for a tour of Great American Ball Park. He met CEO Bob Castellini and much of the front office, and the 28-year-old even made phone calls to sell season tickets to fans and went to City Hall to meet Cincinnati Mayor John Cranley.

Tweet from @Reds: .@YasielPuig already making moves in City Hall. pic.twitter.com/pDmvI2QSqm

The day was capped by a visit to the P&G MLB Urban Youth Academy to speak to kids and answer their questions.

Puig initially had mixed emotions after he was traded along with Matt Kemp, Alex Wood and Kyle Farmer for Homer Bailey and two prospects.

"I'm happy and not happy," Puig said. "I'm in the middle both ways because of six years with the Dodgers, I loved the city. I loved the team. I loved my fans. That's who I'm going to miss the most. But coming to a new city, a new team, I know this city is about baseball, the Big Red Machine. I hope we can be something like that, a little bit closer to that."

The Reds have not been to the playoffs since 2013 and have endured four straight 90-plus-loss seasons. Puig is hopeful that he and the team can end that drought.

"That's what everybody in the city is looking for now. We don't want to finish in September," Puig said. "We want to go into October. I've been with one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, for six years and six years straight, I've been in the playoffs. I hope this is not the year I'm going to be out in October. I've come here to bring this team to the playoffs again. I will do the best I can, and my teammates will do the best they can, too."

Tweet from @Reds: Here���s the photo you���ve been looking for. 😃 pic.twitter.com/53IcbYKwHu

He batted .267/.327/.494 with 23 home runs and 63 RBIs last season and slugged 108 homers over six seasons in Los Angeles. Puig said he didn't expect to seek clearing the fences even more in a cozier home ballpark and that he wants to hit line drives to all fields.

One of the familiar faces Puig will have in Cincinnati is Turner Ward, who was hired away from the Dodgers to be the hitting coach. Puig was thrilled that he gets to continue working with Ward.

"We are like a family. I talk to him a lot," Puig said. "He's helped me a lot to be a better person, a better baseball player. He's family. We talk every time. His wife loves me. All his sons and his daughter and his whole family, we talk and we have good days when we're together in Los Angeles. When we fly to different cities, we go shopping together. We eat together. This is a good relationship with Turner."

Defensively, Puig has spent most of his time in right field, where he has one of the best throwing arms in baseball. However, the Reds have a need in center field, and Puig does have some experience there. He would be open to playing center field again.

"I'm going to be prepared for my manager and my team if they need me in center field, right field," he said. "No matter what, I want to be in the lineup every day and do the best I can to help my team to win."

Video: Yasiel Puig is the No. 7 right fielder right now

Puig plans on keeping his outgoing personality with his new club. That includes licking his bat when he feels the need to spark some hits.

"There's something good and I miss it, I lick my bat, or I try to talk to my bat like, 'Hey, if you can give me something good right in this moment.' He listens to me -- I believe so -- and the next pitch, I hit a home run or I [help] my team winning. That's a reason I do lick the bat, but I don't like it."

Puig has frequently been caught on camera teasing and kissing Ward in the dugout after big hits. Will that also continue?

"I need to hit first," Puig replied. "If I don't hit, I'm not going to kiss Turner Ward."

Mark Sheldon has covered the Reds for MLB.com since 2006, and previously covered the Twins from 2001-05. Follow him on Twitter @m_sheldon and Facebook and listen to his podcast.

Cincinnati Reds, Yasiel Puig

Dream Series inspirational for young players

Annual five-day event concludes on MLK Day with BP, bullpen sessions and defensive drills
MLB.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The sound of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice could be heard throughout the backfields of Tempe Diablo Stadium all weekend.

King's "I Have a Dream" speech echoed in the batting cages and in the bullpens. His inspirational messages of hope served as the backdrop for one of the most important events in baseball.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The sound of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s voice could be heard throughout the backfields of Tempe Diablo Stadium all weekend.

King's "I Have a Dream" speech echoed in the batting cages and in the bullpens. His inspirational messages of hope served as the backdrop for one of the most important events in baseball.

"If I'm a Major League club, I'm putting the Dream Series on my calendar every year, because this is the start of their year," said Tony Reagins, MLB's executive vice president of baseball and softball development. "These kids will have a foundation to build on for their upcoming season. We think that the overall program is paying dividends, not only for Major League Baseball, but for these young kids."

The third annual Dream Series, an initiative from MLB and USA Baseball that features a diverse group of some of the nation's top high-school pitching and catching prospects, concluded Monday with batting practice, bullpen sessions and defensive drills at the Spring Training home of the Angels.

Tweet from @MLBDevelops: #DreamSeries pic.twitter.com/PUtHnVDzaG

The five-day event, which is scheduled in connection with MLK Day each year, officially began Thursday with a welcome dinner. In addition to the work on the field, the event offered information on baseball career opportunities at the professional and collegiate level with daily presentations from former Major Leaguers, scouts, college administrators and MLB umpires.

The Dream Series also featured athletic assessments through Prospect Development Pipeline (PDP) screenings. There was study hall every day, too.

Video: Gordon discusses his role at the Dream Series

"I think we're chipping away at what we're trying to accomplish. We're not there yet by any means, but this group of kids that we have at this camp versus when we had our first camp, the difference is tremendous," Reagins said. "The knowledge that these kids have, it's been great. From the off-the-field things that we're trying to get them to embrace, they're receptive."

The coaching staff was made up of a star-studded group that included former Major League players Tom "Flash" Gordon, Charles Johnson, Kenny Hill, Junior Spivey, LaTroy Hawkins, Darren Oliver, Marvin Freeman, Gerald Laird, Lenny Webster, Darrell Miller and Sergio Santos. Former MLB manager Jerry Manuel and former front-office executive and scout Reggie Waller also served as instructors.

Video: Junior Spivey interviews son Tre about Dream Series

Among the camp's special guests was Reds pitcher Amir Garrett. Former Major League stars Eric Davis and Dmitri Young also made appearances during the Dream Series.

"The sacrifice that Martin Luther King Jr. made for us, putting his life on the line for us, fighting for us is huge, and it's important for all these guys to understand who came before you and who paved the way and who fought for you," Spivey said. "On the baseball side of it, they're going to benefit from this, but the life lessons they're going to take from this and how to navigate the challenges coming, that's where it's really going to benefit."

Close to half the participants in this year's Dream Series have already committed to play the sport in college, and more commitments could be on the way. They will all take the lessons they learned at the Dream Series with them to the next level.

Video: Garrett on his visit to Dream Series camp

"The Dream Series has helped me with my composure and given me even more reason to work hard and play the game hard," said Christian Little, a right-handed pitcher who has committed to Vanderbilt. "I'm going to take home the lessons of Dr. King. He paved a path for us, and hopefully with hard work, I can pave a path for others to follow."

One day, the participants in the Dream Series could find themselves playing in the Andre Dawson Classic and MLB4, two college tournaments scheduled near the beginning of each year. For now, the focus is on growing as a player and a person.

"I feel like everything they taught us was valuable information, and it was coming from guys that played at the highest level," said catcher Andreus Lewis, who has committed to play at Eastern Kentucky with his twin brother Andrew, a right-hander pitcher. "I've been able to take bits and pieces from everyone, and I know it's going to help my total game. It's been tremendous for me and my development."

Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.

Dream Series aims to build young leaders

Event's staff hopes to inspire high school prospects on, off diamond
MLB.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Former big league manager Jerry Manuel adjusted the bill of his cream-colored hat, dusted off the front of his white hoodie and then glided from his front-row seat in the hotel amphitheater to the podium.

He looked up from the microphone to see the 60 participants in this year's Dream Series standing, too. Their ovation was boisterous.

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Former big league manager Jerry Manuel adjusted the bill of his cream-colored hat, dusted off the front of his white hoodie and then glided from his front-row seat in the hotel amphitheater to the podium.

He looked up from the microphone to see the 60 participants in this year's Dream Series standing, too. Their ovation was boisterous.

"You guys sit down," Manuel said. "I have something to say to you. Cool, cool, cool. OK, listen up."

The young men quickly and quietly took their seats. Baseball school was officially in session.

"We are not building followers here, we are building leaders," Manuel told the teens. "And as leaders, we lead by action, self-discipline and strong character. This is 'Mountaintop' stuff."

The workout portion of the camp officially starts on Friday morning at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Angels, but Manuel, the coaching staff and the support staff set the tone on Thursday night with their words of encouragement. The event, which is designed to develop the athletes for a future in baseball, and diversify the future talent pool, runs in connection with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and continues through Monday.

"Everybody here is passionate about youth, passionate about the next generation and really cares about impacting the kids by passing on what they learned in the game," said Del Matthews, MLB's senior director for baseball development. "Baseball is a generational game. It's passed down from fathers to sons. And in this case, to be able to bring this group of young men together around the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday, it's just really special."

The coaches joining Manuel at this year's Dream Series include former MLB stars Tom "Flash" Gordon, Charles Johnson, Kenny Hill, Junior Spivey, LaTroy Hawkins, Darren Oliver, Marvin Freeman, Gerald Laird, Lenny Webster, Darrell Miller and Sergio Santos. Former MLB front-office executive and scout Reggie Waller is also serving as an instructor.

Tweet from @MLBPipeline: The Dream Series, an @MLB & @USABaseball initiative, is a 5-day event culminating on MLK Day. It features HS pitching & catching prospects and is designed to develop the athletes and diversify baseball's future talent pool. More from @JesseSanchezMLB: https://t.co/ZtVlNX3FBm pic.twitter.com/cSad9EtAJV

It's no surprise that every member of the coaching staff has prior experience in Major League Baseball's youth development programs. They are all committed to diversifying the talent in the game.

"Being here is very important to me because I get to be around these kids and give them some hope and it's always good to show support," said Gordon, who also coaches in the Breakthrough Series along with other tournaments and camps through Major League Baseball. "The program that we have here is just phenomenal because these kids actually get to be around people that lived out a dream to be Major Leaguers and a lot of these kids in the room want to do the same thing. They have dreams and aspirations and we are trying to help them with their goals."

Baseball training is the primary reason for the gathering in Arizona, but the Dream Series will also provide the participants information on baseball career opportunities with daily presentations from former Major Leaguers, scouts, college administrators and MLB umpires. Reds pitcher Amir Garrett is will visit on Friday. There are also high-tech assessments through Prospect Development Pipeline (PDP) screenings.

The teens are also learning more about the life and accomplishments of Dr. King.

"They're going to learn a lot of things this week," Matthews said. "Maybe it's a different grip on a pitch, maybe it's something mechanically, maybe it's just a mental note for the pitchers to throw more strikes, being aggressive and attacking the zone. Maybe it's a confidence factor, believing in themselves and knowing they can achieve anything if they're willing to discipline themselves and work extremely hard.

"At the end of the camp, I'm hoping they go back to wherever they're from motivated and ready to start their high school seasons, and willing to leave it all out on the line to display their talents."

Jesse Sanchez, who has been writing for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.

Matz spreads love of game at Play Ball event

Special to MLB.com

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Major League Baseball hosted its final Play Ball event of the year on Tuesday at Belmont University's E.S. Rose Athletic Complex.

The weather was cold, but the spirits were high as hundreds of elementary school students ran around and had fun with Mets pitcher and Nashville resident Steven Matz, as well as baseball and softball players from Belmont University.

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Major League Baseball hosted its final Play Ball event of the year on Tuesday at Belmont University's E.S. Rose Athletic Complex.

The weather was cold, but the spirits were high as hundreds of elementary school students ran around and had fun with Mets pitcher and Nashville resident Steven Matz, as well as baseball and softball players from Belmont University.

"I think it's really important for the kids to have an opportunity to interact with current players, whether it be college, pro or otherwise, who actually understand the game a little bit," said Tony Majors, director of RBI Nashville. "They sort of show them the passion they have for the game."

Play Ball hosted 28 events across North America this year, including two in Nashville. The first event of the year, also hosted in the Music City, was open to the public in February, although this event was held for students from two local elementary schools.

David James, MLB's vice president of baseball and softball development, said the league has made an effort to reach out to communities beyond the 27 Major League cities. He's excited to introduce the game to kids whose schools don't have baseball teams and share the joy.

"[My favorite part is] probably watching a kid, and I just saw it here. A young lady connected with the bat in the Home Run Derby and hit it well," James said. "One of her other friends there said, 'You should play softball. My sister plays softball.' That's a win."

Sara Feleke and Amen Wendie, both 9 years old, were among those in attendance from Carter-Lawrence Elementary School. Wrapped up warmly for the 40-degree weather, they enjoyed the baserunning drills, popups and hitting.

"I've never played baseball. This is my first time learning," Feleke said. "I like the throwing and catching. The ball rolled over me, but I had fun."

"I can't wait to embrace all the energy," Wendie said. "I hope you guys come every year. I would want to be a baseball player, because it seems like so much fun, throwing the ball and hitting it."

Many of the children were excited to meet their first big league player as Matz hopped from group to group to engage with each group. Matz recently moved to Nashville since getting married last winter and has enjoyed connecting with the local community.

"When I got the opportunity to come out here, it was kind of a no-brainer for me," Matz said. "I've grown up in New York. I got to have two Major League teams where I was. To just come out here and be with the kids and throw balls to them and let them hit and watch them run around and laugh, it's really a cool experience. I think it's important. "

Ben Weinrib is a contributor to MLB.com.

New York Mets, Steven Matz

Nats' youth academy honored for social work

MLB.com

The Nationals have been recognized for their commitment to using baseball and softball as a means to promote positive character development, academic achievement and improved health among youth athletes in the underserved communities of Washington D.C.

The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy was selected as a 2018 winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award. The winners received a $10,000 cash reward and were honored Thursday at the RWJF headquarters in Princeton, N.J.

The Nationals have been recognized for their commitment to using baseball and softball as a means to promote positive character development, academic achievement and improved health among youth athletes in the underserved communities of Washington D.C.

The Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy was selected as a 2018 winner of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award. The winners received a $10,000 cash reward and were honored Thursday at the RWJF headquarters in Princeton, N.J.

"Congratulations to these organizations and the passionate, dedicated people who lead them," RWJF president and CEO Richard Besser said. "We are inspired by their choice to use healthy play as a starting point to greater social and emotional well-being in their communities. They forge leaders, build greater understanding among strangers and endeavor to heal the personal wounds of discrimination, poverty and inequity."

Tweet from @NatsAcademy: Thank you @RWJF for this honor. Congratulations to @soccerwoborders and @Sannehfdn for sharing in the award with us and for your outstanding work using sports to deliver community impact. #RWJFSportsAward https://t.co/jYY045CtK3 https://t.co/8RbXeHBn08

The Nationals' Academy organizes out-of-school activities for children between the ages of 8-13, who reside in Wards 7 and 8 in D.C., communities located east of the Anacostia River. Programming is designed to improve physical fitness and academic performance. The initiatives provides opportunities for 800 young men and women to play baseball and softball through YBA Play. More than 100 families are supported in building a Culture of Health through nutrition, education, cooking workshops and community events.

"Our holistic approach -- combining sports, nutrition, academics and meaningful civic engagement -- has for the past six years supported underserved children and their families in Washington D.C," said Jennifer Cartland, deputy director of the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. "We're thrilled to continue working with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Sports Award winners and affiliated organizations in the pursuit of innovative solutions and approaches to enhancing the overall wellness of those we serve."

Mark Bowman is a reporter for MLB.com.

Washington Nationals

Compton academy gets boost from golf outing

Hunter, Matthews co-host event in Newport Beach for 2nd straight year
MLB.com

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Much of the Southern California baseball community gathered at Newport Beach Country Club on Monday to help support the next generation of athletes coming up behind them.

A number of former and current Major Leaguers took to the links for this year's Celebrity Golf Invitational, which benefits the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Former All-Stars Torii Hunter and Gary Matthews Jr. co-hosted the event at the Newport Beach Country Club for a second consecutive year.

NEWPORT BEACH, Calif. -- Much of the Southern California baseball community gathered at Newport Beach Country Club on Monday to help support the next generation of athletes coming up behind them.

A number of former and current Major Leaguers took to the links for this year's Celebrity Golf Invitational, which benefits the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Former All-Stars Torii Hunter and Gary Matthews Jr. co-hosted the event at the Newport Beach Country Club for a second consecutive year.

Hunter assumed hosting duties for the annual fundraiser from Hall of Famer Frank Robinson beginning in 2016, and partnered with Matthews, his former Angels teammate, in '17. Proceeds from the event will support the academy through the nonprofit Major League Baseball Youth Foundation.

"It's something that's near and dear to my heart," Hunter said. "Everything they have to offer at the academy is something that I stand for."

Video: Hunter on UYA Golf outing, Mauer's retirement

The MLB Youth Academy in Compton aims to expand baseball's reach in communities where kids might not otherwise have access to the facilities, equipment and instruction required to play the sport. The facility spans 20 acres of the Compton College campus and features multiple playing fields, training areas, batting cages and pitching mounds. It offers free year-round baseball and softball instruction as well as educational resources and programs such as SAT and ACT prep courses and tutoring.

Since the Compton academy opened its doors in 2006, more than 500 of its student-athletes have gone on to play collegiate softball or baseball and more than 160 have been drafted by MLB clubs, including last year's No. 2 pick, Hunter Greene, the Reds' third-ranked prospect (No. 22 overall), per MLB Pipeline. Greene, who started going to the academy when he was 7 years old, attended Monday's event but couldn't play because he's rehabbing an ulnar collateral ligament sprain this offseason.

"I remember I was looking down on him, now he's looking down on me," said Ken Landreaux, a former All-Star outfielder who won a World Series with the Dodgers in 1981 and has been an instructor at the academy since it opened. "You don't ever want to forget where you started. Life's a cycle. They've gotten a helping hand, and hopefully they turn around and they present a helping hand."

Like many academy alumni, Greene jumped at the opportunity to support the place that was so important to his development. The academy has now produced several Major Leaguers -- including the Yankees' Aaron Hicks and Kyle Higashioka, the Mets' Dominic Smith, the A's Khris Davis and the Phillies' J.P. Crawford and Vince Velasquez -- and they maintain an active presence at the facility and in the community.

"For me, it's really easy to give back because it's the people I care about, that I love and appreciate, who helped me get here," said Greene, who fondly recalled playing alongside several future big leaguers as a child. "To be around those guys and be able to get that mentorship at that age when I was young, it helped me not just to be a good baseball player, but a good person as well."

"To whom much is given, much is expected," said Trayce Thompson, who went to the academy as a teenager. A Southern California native, Thompson played two seasons with the Dodgers from 2016-17 and is currently a free agent after splitting the 2018 campaign between the A's and White Sox.

"You're supposed to give back and do what you can to help kids out, especially the kids at the academy. Most of them aren't as fortunate as I was growing up with my dad [former NBA player Mychal Thompson] being who he was. I try to give back as much as I can, because I remember when I was a kid -- the gesture goes really far."

The Compton academy was the first such facility built by MLB, and seven more have since opened in Cincinnati, Dallas, Gurabo (Puerto Rico), Houston, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. Three more are in development in New York, Chicago and San Francisco.

"I think [the academy] sends a strong message that we care," said former Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who touted his foursome with Red Sox bench coach Ron Roenicke, former Dodgers teammate Mickey Hatcher and Yankees bullpen coach Mike Harkey as the team to beat. "This is one piece of the pie. We've got to continue to grow and continue to give kids opportunities all over the country. ... We need to build fields, we need to go out there and get kids excited about baseball."

Video: Scioscia talks retirement, Angels on High Heat

Others in attendance included MLB executive vice president of baseball and softball development and former Angels general manager Tony Reagins; MLB vice president for youth and facility development, director of the Compton academy and former Angel Darrell Miller; and former Major Leaguers Kenny Lofton, Chuck Finley, Bob Boone, Garret Anderson, Shawn Green, Mark Gubicza, Derrek Lee, Vince Coleman, Dmitri Young, Gary Matthews Sr., Darren Oliver, Jerry Hairston Jr., Jerry Hairston Sr., Brett Tomko and Sergio Santos.

"All the guys that are here, they want to be here. We didn't beg them," Hunter said. "They wanted to come here because there's some fruit coming out of the academy and they see the fruit. People want to be a part of something great."

Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles.

MLB, US Embassy host clinic for Japanese youth

MLB.com

TOKYO -- Major League Baseball's ongoing commitment to its youth outreach programs, coupled with its desire to continue to grow the game globally, has been a running theme throughout the current Japan All-Star Series.

While much of the focus of the tournament is directed toward the on-field play between the Major League All-Stars and Samurai Japan, the youth element is always present, as was the case Saturday at the Tokyo Dome, hours before Game 2 of the six-game tournament.

View Full Game Coverage

TOKYO -- Major League Baseball's ongoing commitment to its youth outreach programs, coupled with its desire to continue to grow the game globally, has been a running theme throughout the current Japan All-Star Series.

While much of the focus of the tournament is directed toward the on-field play between the Major League All-Stars and Samurai Japan, the youth element is always present, as was the case Saturday at the Tokyo Dome, hours before Game 2 of the six-game tournament.

View Full Game Coverage

Twenty-six middle-school kids, ages 13 to 14, were invited onto the field to participate in a baseball clinic with several members of the Major League All-Star team.

A foursome of Whit Merrifield, Rhys Hoskins, Enrique Hernandez and Ronald Acuna Jr. held a station-by-station tutorial in the outfield area of the Dome, an exercise designed to help the kids further develop their basic baseball skills.

Video: MLB stars run clinic, spend time with young players

"Their fundamentals were really impressive," Merrifield said. "It's not even close to where I was at that age. It was quite impressive, and hopefully, they can keep the desire to get better and continue to improve and play on this field someday."

The event was hosted by the U.S. Embassy, in conjunction with a campaign titled "Go For the Gold," which pairs participating countries in the Olympics with schools in various cities in Japan, the host country of the 2020 Summer Olympics.

The United States was paired with Setagaya, an area outside of Tokyo, and it has focused on both sports and educational-related activities, all of which will be held in advance of, and leading up to, the 2020 Games.

Saturday's clinic on the field at the Tokyo Dome was just one activity planned around the "Go For Gold" initiative. Olympic swimmer Katie Ledecky's visit to Setagaya three months ago, when she held a clinic for young Japanese swimmers at a pool in the city, was another.

At the baseball clinic, the young ballplayers were given an up-close view of the four Major Leaguers, who presented their tutorials with help from interpreters who were positioned at each station.

Hoskins, explaining to the kids that he plays both the infield and the outfield for the Phillies, asked them specifically which positions they played, and he offered his expertise in ensuring their approach is the most efficient and accurate as their play in the field.

"These kids are a lot more fundamentally sound than I was [when I was a kid]," Hoskins said. "It's quite obvious that the passion they have for baseball is quite high. That's really cool to see at such a young age."

At the end of the clinic, the players presented the players with gifts, as is customary in Japan when people from different nations meet in a gesture of goodwill.

"I was a kid with big dreams once, and I know how much it means for kids to be here and it's something that they'll never forget," Hernandez said. "I wish we had some more time with them, so we could do a little more with them. You can tell they had a lot of fun. At the end of the day, this is why we play. The kids are our future, and we know how big this is for them."

The clinic was actually the second event of the day for the foursome. The afternoon began with a visit to the MLB Cafe, an officially licensed restaurant located adjacent to the Tokyo Dome.

The venue offers the general experience one would find in a typical upscale sports bar -- libations, food and large-screen televisions to watch games. It's fair to say the restaurant, which opened three years ago, had never actually hosted an actual Major League player. That changed on Saturday, when the four players filed into the main room for a meet-and-greet with the lunchtime crowd.

The event included a question-and-answer session, in addition to the opportunity to meet the players through a raffle.

Each player pulled names out of a box, lottery style, and the winners were gifted with a variety of baseballs and jerseys, autographed by the players.

Video: Hoskins, Hernandez on what it's like to play in Japan

"The fans have been amazing so far," Hernandez said to the crowd. "Japan has always been a place that I have wanted to come visit. I get to experience this amazing culture that you have here. Playing at the Tokyo Dome has been great."

Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.

Play Ball holds unforgettable 1st event in Hawaii

Special to MLB.com

HONOLULU -- Upon returning to his home state of Hawaii, Padres reliever Kirby Yates makes it a point to enjoy some fresh "poke" (pronounced POH-kay) -- a Hawaiian staple of seasoned raw fish.

A Kauai native and product of Kauai High School, Yates usually returns to the "808 state" in the offseason to spend down time with family and friends. However, this offseason homecoming trip also involves some business.

HONOLULU -- Upon returning to his home state of Hawaii, Padres reliever Kirby Yates makes it a point to enjoy some fresh "poke" (pronounced POH-kay) -- a Hawaiian staple of seasoned raw fish.

A Kauai native and product of Kauai High School, Yates usually returns to the "808 state" in the offseason to spend down time with family and friends. However, this offseason homecoming trip also involves some business.

Video: MLB stars prepare in Hawaii for Japan Series

Yates is part of the Major League squad taking part in the Hawaii Workout, a stopover trip that began Saturday afternoon at Les Murakami Stadium on the University of Hawaii at Manoa campus in Honolulu. He is joined by 2018 All-Stars Yadier Molina (Cardinals), J.T. Realmuto (Marlins catcher), Mitch Haniger (Mariners outfielder) and Eugenio Suarez (Reds infielder), as well as star rookie outfielders Juan Soto (Nationals) and Ronald Acuna Jr. (Braves).

MLB stars prepare in Hawaii for Japan Series

Video: Kirby Yates discusses Hawaii workouts, Japan Series

Players, coaches and support staff are spending the weekend on Oahu before heading to Japan for the 2018 Japan All-Star Series, which pits MLB players against counterparts from Nippon Professional Baseball in seven games from Nov. 8-15.

Tweet from @PlayBall: BP thrown by Juan Soto? So awesome. #PlayBall pic.twitter.com/eV0cAsQQ2k

"The last time I was standing on this field was for my last high school game, so I'm very fortunate to be invited to come and be a part of something like this," said Yates, who was one of the players who engaged in light warmup drills and took batting practice before spending time with hundreds of young ballplayers at the Play Ball event Saturday. "To see the kids' faces and having them scream my name, it's pretty surreal.

"Whenever you see [a Major Leaguer] who is actually doing it, who grew up playing here, went to high school and played on this field, then can make it to the next level and come back with an MLB uniform, it's important to let them know that it can be done. I hope that they feel like they can accomplish anything."

Players from the University of Hawaii also participated in the Play Ball event. Local youth baseball and softball players learned from their hometown heroes at the professional and collegiate levels, and visited multiple stations, including home run derby, base running and bat-and-ball games. The experience marked the first time Play Ball was held in Hawaii.

Tweet from @PlayBall: Home runs for everyone. #PlayBall pic.twitter.com/iENSZkivEx

"We're all star-struck, we're seeing guys we watch on TV and who we've seen growing up," University of Hawaii senior infielder Ethan Lopez said after snapping a selfie with All-Star Series manager Don Mattingly. "Just to see them on our field, playing catch and doing things we do as players, it's an amazing experience. I'm trying to take it all in; even watching the way they warm up, and where they position their gloves, these big-name guys are in our home stadium. It's fun to have an experience like this."

Video: Manager Don Mattingly discusses Hawaii workouts

Prior to the Play Ball event, the 2018 Little League World Series champions from Hawaii were honored, and players had the rare opportunity to take pictures with and learn from their big league idols during the workout.

"I'm looking forward to hanging out with the MLB players and the UH players, too, because I want to see and learn their different styles of playing the game," said Ka'olu Holt, an eighth-grader at Kamehameha Schools Kapalama, who was the winning pitcher in the Little League title game.

Holt said he set his sights on meeting Molina.

"Yadier is one of my favorite players, and he's on my favorite team," Holt said. "This is a great opportunity for us to thank the people who have supported us, and so that we can give back to the little kids watching us who want to play baseball, too."

Video: Yadier Molina discusses working out in Hawaii

Ceremonial baseballs were used during Saturday's festivities to mark Major League Baseball's nationwide tour geared toward bringing Play Ball to all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

The All-Star Series extends a longtime tradition that dates back to 1908, and will mark the 37th time that Major Leaguers have toured Japan for exhibition games. The series will be played in Tokyo, Hiroshima and Nagoya, and MLB Network will provide extensive coverage, including live game telecasts from Nov. 9-15.

Kyle Galdeira is a contributor to MLB.com.

Play Ball enthralls kids at ST home of KC, Texas

MLB.com