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Youth Baseball

Finch mentors young softball players

Dozens of girls learn from the best at Compton Youth Academy
MLB.com

COMPTON, Calif. -- Dozens of young girls got the softball experience of a lifetime Saturday afternoon, as American softball legend Jennie Finch hosted an event at Major League Baseball's Compton Youth Academy.

Finch, the two-time U.S. Olympic softball medalist, took her familiar position on the rubber to offer instruction to more than 75 female athletes who grew up learning of her pitching prowess.

COMPTON, Calif. -- Dozens of young girls got the softball experience of a lifetime Saturday afternoon, as American softball legend Jennie Finch hosted an event at Major League Baseball's Compton Youth Academy.

Finch, the two-time U.S. Olympic softball medalist, took her familiar position on the rubber to offer instruction to more than 75 female athletes who grew up learning of her pitching prowess.

"This is the best part about who I am and what I get to do: Being able to give back to the next generation, empower them, encourage them," said Finch, MLB's youth softball ambassador. "Yes it's about the game, but it's so much more than that. I just love the hunger, the love of the game that just shines off the field."

Video: Finch on hosting softball youth clinic

Finch seemed right at home on the infield dirt, clutching a bright yellow softball in her right hand as she shared her pitching knowledge. While she was sure to go over fundamentals and mechanics, Finch wanted the girls to understand that so much of the game --and life-- is mental.

"Our most powerful tool is between our ears and we are in control of it," Finch said. "I think too often, just with social media and everything else, we let so many voices and garbage come in. And it's like, 'No, be you, stand out, be courageous, be strong, and keep being you.' We have to have our most powerful tool working for us and not against us."

Tweet from @DodgersFdn: #DodgersRBI players were invited to take part in the @JennieFinch softball clinic today! pic.twitter.com/kGYb8anoXo

Finch wasn't the only softball star making an impact on the next generation Saturday. Former pro softball player and local product Amber Freeman spent the afternoon in the batting cages, where the girls took swings off a tee. Meanwhile, Youth Academy coaches hit countless ground balls and fly balls. There were also stations focused on baserunning and calisthenics.

Saturday's free clinic, which is part of MLB's efforts to incorporate softball into its overall Play Ball and youth outreach initiative, reminded Finch just how far softball has come since she rose to the top of the sport in the early 2000s.

"It's just so fun to see these young ladies going after their dreams, putting the haters aside and just going after their goals that they have set and just going after it with a fire," said Finch, who noted such events weren't around when she was growing up. "It fires me up every time I leave. There are girls that are taking busses to games. It's on them and they are doing it and I love it that nothing is stopping them."

Austin Laymance is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter at @JALaymance.

Andre Dawson Classic wraps up play

Annual HBCU tournament held in New Orleans
MLB.com

Six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), plus the University of Illinois at Chicago and tournament co-host University of New Orleans, squared off this weekend at the newly dubbed Andre Dawson Classic.

? Dawson excited by tournament bearing his name

Six historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), plus the University of Illinois at Chicago and tournament co-host University of New Orleans, squared off this weekend at the newly dubbed Andre Dawson Classic.

? Dawson excited by tournament bearing his name

The eight-team, round-robin tournament was played at UNO's Maestri Field and the New Orleans Major League Baseball Academy and concluded Sunday. Formerly known as the Urban Invitational, the tournament was held for the 11th time.

? Grambling star shows poise at Dawson Classic

RESULTS
Friday:
Illinois-Chicago Flames 3, Southern Jaguars 0. Gameday ?
Alcorn State Braves 5, Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions 4. Gameday ? 
Southern Jaguars 8, Grambling State Tigers 7. Gameday ??
New Orleans Privateers 5, Illinois-Chicago Flames 4. Gameday ??
Alabama State Hornets 8, Prairie View A&M Panthers 7. Gameday ??

Saturday:
Illinois-Chicago Flames 9, Southern Jaguars 5. Gameday ??
Alcorn State Braves 8, Prairie View A&M Panthers 4. Gameday ??
Alabama State Hornets 6, New Orleans Privateers 3. Gameday ??
Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions 5, Grambling State Tigers 4. Gameday ??

Sunday:
Arkansas-Pine Bluff Golden Lions 8, Alabama State Hornets 5. Gameday ??
Illinois-Chicago Flames 10, Prairie View A&M Panthers 7. Gameday ??
Grambling State Tigers 6, Alcorn State Braves 5. Gameday ??
New Orleans Privateers 14, Southern Jaguars 3. Gameday ??

Dawson excited by tournament bearing his name

Formerly known as Urban Invitational, event features HBCU teams
Special to MLB.com

Andre Dawson hadn't been to New Orleans in three years.

The 6-foot-3 Hall of Famer returned Sunday to see his name plastered on shirts, programs and signs. It was Dawson's name that Major League Baseball decided to use to rebrand what was formerly known as the Urban Invitational.

Andre Dawson hadn't been to New Orleans in three years.

The 6-foot-3 Hall of Famer returned Sunday to see his name plastered on shirts, programs and signs. It was Dawson's name that Major League Baseball decided to use to rebrand what was formerly known as the Urban Invitational.

The invitational, now known as the Andre Dawson Classic, is an annual round-robin tournament set up to showcase historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), broadcast live on MLB Network and MLB.com. The idea to name the tournament after Dawson was fostered by MLB senior vice president of youth programs Tony Reagins and senior director of baseball development Del Matthews.

? Andre Dawson Classic coverage

The two felt it was important to put a face on the tournament, and they wanted someone with a strong connection to HBCUs and a name that people recognized to create a new buzz around it. Dawson fit the bill as an alumnus of Florida A&M and an eight-time All-Star who won Rookie of the Year in 1977 and MVP in 1987.

Dawson called the opportunity for the tournament to be named after him "exciting" and said he didn't know what to expect originally.

"For me, it's an honor to support an HBCU program," Dawson said. "And I look at this as an opportunity to be further involved and help these individuals be empowering and later on with this opportunity become community leaders."

There was no hesitation on Dawson's part to accept the offer, and he hopes with his name, he can help the under-the-radar players of HBCUs get exposure to Major League clubs.

"There are a million kids that have hopes and aspirations of trying to get to the professional level," Dawson said. "To be a source that they can look at and know, 'Hey, if it happened to this particular individual, there's hope.'"

Hope is what Matthews and Reagins are trying to instill in African-American youth players by bringing Dawson to the forefront and attempting to increase the popularity of MLB Youth Academies that serve cities as a site of free baseball instruction.

Reagins said it is important to not forget those who paved the way for black players in the game, and that Dawson's name and legacy is a good fit for what he and his team are trying to accomplish by creating exposure and awareness for HBCUs and players involved with those teams and youth academies.

"That's important because the kids that go to this academy, they need to see people that look like them playing at a higher level so one day they're thinking, 'I can be that guy that is on TV' or 'I'm that guy to be a part of an HBCU program or a college program in general,'" said Reagins, whose job is to help expand youth participation in baseball. "For us, getting kids to college is the big win. To get to pro ball, that's icing on the cake, but we want to get our kids in college, and this why we do this tournament."

From the responses Reagins has received from the participating coaches, this year's Classic has been a success. He said coaches have told him they would like to return year after year, and that is the type of response he wants to hear.

Now his goal is to expand the reach of the Classic and make it a premier event for college baseball with the help of Dawson and MLB Network.

"Being inducted in the Baseball Hall of Fame, you kind of see your career come full circle and you're rewarded with those accolades accumulated over longevity," said Dawson, who complimented MLB on the job it's doing with youth programs. "To have this kind of honor bestowed upon you amongst people that are your contemporaries or people that run the game, to me that is a little bit more important.

"This is right up there [with being inducted into the Hall of Fame]. This is something that is national now. These kids get to get national exposure, and to have my name attached to it, I'm very excited to be associated with it."

Brandon Adam is a contributor to MLB.com.

At Dawson Classic, pitcher follows father's path

Son of former big leaguer, Southern's Freeman eyes bounceback in '18
Special to MLB.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Former MLB relief pitcher Marvin Freeman didn't just come here to celebrate the significance of the Andre Dawson Classic, a baseball tournament featuring historically black colleges and universities. He came to see his son, Justin, a senior pitcher for Southern University.

Justin Freeman is attempting to become a reliable starter for the Jaguars after spending time primarily as a reliever in his first three seasons. In 2017, he struggled with an elbow injury that limited him to eight appearances and an 8.56 ERA with six strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.

NEW ORLEANS -- Former MLB relief pitcher Marvin Freeman didn't just come here to celebrate the significance of the Andre Dawson Classic, a baseball tournament featuring historically black colleges and universities. He came to see his son, Justin, a senior pitcher for Southern University.

Justin Freeman is attempting to become a reliable starter for the Jaguars after spending time primarily as a reliever in his first three seasons. In 2017, he struggled with an elbow injury that limited him to eight appearances and an 8.56 ERA with six strikeouts in 13 2/3 innings.

? Andre Dawson Classic coverage

Justin said it's a good feeling to know that he is being relied on to contribute, and he hopes to satisfy the expectations of the coaching staff and his teammates.

Expectations that come with being the son of a former Major League pitcher is something Justin said he struggled with in his youth, but as he matured, he has felt better equipped to handle it. One of the things that has helped him is words from his father, who spent 12 years in the Majors and finished fourth in the NL Cy Young voting in 1994 after posting 10 wins and a 2.80 ERA for the Colorado Rockies.

Marvin said he tells his son to embrace the family name, make it his own and become his own player.

"It's hard on him," said Marvin, a graduate of Jackson State, a historically black college in Jackson, Miss. "No matter whose son played Major League Baseball, he's going to have that shadow over his head and he's going to have the pressure of being what dad was, or better than dad, and it's hard to escape that."

For the upcoming season, Justin is putting his family name aside and focusing on helping Southern achieve its first winning season since 2012.

"I feel like any goal I set for myself is realistic and possible," Justin said. "If I work hard enough, I can achieve it."

First-year coach Kerrick Jackson hopes to use Justin as a midweek starter and a possible relief option in weekend series.

"He's come a long way since we've been here in the fall," Jackson said. "We've developed a breaking ball that he didn't have before. The change has become a swing-and-miss pitch for him. He's been working his tail off and doing the things we are asking him to do, so we are expecting some big things."

The eight-team, round-robin tournament is being played at University of New Orleans' Maestri Field and the New Orleans Major League Baseball Academy through Sunday. Formerly known as the Urban Invitational, the tournament is in its 11th season.

In Friday's season-opening doubleheader for Southern, the Jaguars dropped the first game to the University of Illinois at Chicago, 3-0, but rebounded with an 8-7 victory against rival Grambling in extra innings.

In the win, junior outfielder Ashanti Wheatley hit a walk-off solo home run in the bottom of the 10th. Junior outfielder Javeyan Williams accounted for half of Southern's runs with an inside-the-park grand slam in the sixth inning.

The victory was the first career win for Jackson, who is tasked with replacing Roger Cador after he spent 33 seasons as the Southern head coach.

"When you follow somebody like coach Cador and you're coming into a new situation and everybody is wondering what kind of impact you'll have, when you get that first win knocked off, it allows you to breathe a sigh of relief and say you got that first one, now let's keep moving forward," Jackson said.

Brandon Adam is a contributor to MLB.com.

Nashville kids treated to Play Ball event

MLB introduces baseball to youngsters
Special to MLB.com

ANTIOCH, Tenn. -- While 7-year-old Ethan Baker was picking up a baseball bat for the first time in the Cane Ridge High School gymnasium on Saturday, his father, Nathaniel, was beaming with pride from the gallery upstairs.

"It's great," Nathaniel said. "It brings smiles and chills to you when you see your little boy out there getting a bat or doing any sport for the first time."

ANTIOCH, Tenn. -- While 7-year-old Ethan Baker was picking up a baseball bat for the first time in the Cane Ridge High School gymnasium on Saturday, his father, Nathaniel, was beaming with pride from the gallery upstairs.

"It's great," Nathaniel said. "It brings smiles and chills to you when you see your little boy out there getting a bat or doing any sport for the first time."

Ethan was one of around 80 kids that participated in Major League Baseball's first Play Ball event of 2018 on Saturday, taking place in the Nashville area. The participants went through fundamental drills, including catching, hitting and throwing. The event was held in support of Nashville RBI, Middle Tennessee's arm of the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program.

The kids got to learn from Nashville RBI high-school participants, as well as Orioles slugger Mark Trumbo, who saw a bit of himself in the kids learning the fundamentals of baseball.

Video: David James on the Play Ball initiative in 2018

"I can't remember precisely the first time I grabbed a bat," Trumbo said. "But even before Little League, my dad had a little foam one, and he'd do the same thing they're doing out here today, underhand. We did that a whole lot, and it was a lot of fun. That's the building blocks of what allows you to keep going."

Events like the one on Saturday provide an opportunity for a wide base of new players and fans to enter the baseball family. In a rapidly changing sports and entertainment landscape, early exposure is key to keeping young people engaged in the sport, according to Renee Tirado, MLB's Chief Diversity & Inclusion Officer.

"It's going to be a game-changer for us, primarily because there's so much competition in the recreational landscape," she said. "Not only just sports, but the phones, esports, gaming. The earlier we get them, the earlier we get them moving, the earlier they get to kind of touch and feel and look and be a part of it, I think they'll stay for the long haul. You're not competing as much for their attention because now it just becomes part of their DNA."

Tweet from @tmajors29: Cardinals 3rd round draft pick Bryce Denton playing hitting coach for RBI Nashville participants this morning pic.twitter.com/CKRFtsKUyh

It was a rainy Saturday afternoon outside, but the enthusiasm inside the gym was anything but dull. As music blared over the speakers, both experienced and new players ran through the drills with smiles on their faces and got a free bat and ball to take home.

That eagerness to learn the game was palpable even though the closest MLB team is 248 miles away in Atlanta. The baseball community is strong and growing in the Music City, with the Triple-A Nashville Sounds and numerous robust college programs, including Vanderbilt.

"The attendance here is great to see," said David James, vice president of youth programs for MLB. "It's early in the season on a rainy day. You have the Sounds here, so Minor League baseball is a big partner in Play Ball also. We expect to see Play Ball events in all 160 Minor League markets. We want to go wherever the game is and make sure that all kids have an opportunity, and it's pretty neat for us to start off in a Minor League market. We will definitely do work in Major League markets, but if we can help grow the RBI program here with a Play Ball event, we're happy to do it."

Video: Trumbo gives advice on hitting for youngsters

Saturday's Play Ball event is the start of what should be a stellar year for Nashville RBI and the game of baseball in the city. Tony Majors, the executive officer of Nashville metro public schools and the head of Nashville RBI, said the program is going to double or triple in size at the 12-and-under, middle-school and high-school levels.

Majors also said that getting kids introduced to the game at a young age will work to sustain RBI leagues such as the ones in Nashville.

"The reality is if a kid is never introduced to a sport, they don't know if they have the skills or a passion for it," he said. "We have our high-school kids here and kids that played RBI last year working with those children who really have never played the game.

"It's really about them having fun. It's about them being engaged, having fun and saying that this is something they would like to continue. That's the purpose for today."

Giving kids the chance to fall in love with baseball is what the event was all about, according to Trumbo.

"I think the game has become a little more exciting, and that's a good thing," Trumbo said. "At this level, there has to be interest at some point. Events like this introduce [baseball] to kids that have never really thought about playing it. It's a sport they might be really good at. I think that as long as you give them a chance to see if it's for them or not, it's a big deal."

Cutler Klein is a contributor to MLB.com.

Finch set to kick off preseason girls clinics

National Girls & Women in Sports Day is the perfect time to get ready for a full slate of female softball and baseball events
MLB.com

Jimmy Dugan, the brash manager of the Rockford Peaches, a women's baseball team and the focal point of the sports-comedy flick A League of Their Own, gave baseball players around the world some sage advice in the movie's critical moments.

"It's supposed to be hard," Dugan, played by Tom Hanks, said of our national pastime. "If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great!"

Jimmy Dugan, the brash manager of the Rockford Peaches, a women's baseball team and the focal point of the sports-comedy flick A League of Their Own, gave baseball players around the world some sage advice in the movie's critical moments.

"It's supposed to be hard," Dugan, played by Tom Hanks, said of our national pastime. "If it wasn't hard, everyone would do it. The hard is what makes it great!"

There are few words truer than these. Yet, just as the Peaches did in the 1992 film, girls and women on diamonds across the country are making the sport look easy. From seven-year-old Hailey Dawson's inspirational first pitches, to Shay Knighten's dramatic 17th-inning home run for Oklahoma in the Women's College World Series, female ballplayers are following in the footsteps of the real-life Peaches, who dominated the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League 75 years ago.

Wednesday marks National Girls & Women in Sports Day (NGWSD), a day devoted to celebrating the achievements of female athletes in all arenas, as well as recognizing the march toward gender equality in sport. This year's theme is "Play Fair, Play IX," an homage to the groundbreaking legislation that ensured equal opportunities for women in interscholastic athletics.

Tweet from @WomensSportsFdn: Happy 32nd National Girls & Women in Sports Day! In every state in our country today thousands will honor the exceptional achievements of girls and women in sports. While we recognize this momentous occasion, we remember the work still left for equality. #PlayFairPlayIX #NGWSD pic.twitter.com/mqUoIXA0Us

Cities across the U.S. are celebrating NGWSD, from the eastern end of Long Island, N.Y., all the way to the University of Washington. However, MLB's commitment to letting all athletes, no matter their gender, find their love for the game doesn't stop on Wednesday. It is just getting started.

The full calendar of events kicks off with the Play Ball Nashville event -- aimed at both girls and boys -- on February 10 at Vanderbilt University, the collegiate home of MLB stars such as David Price, Dansby Swanson and Sonny Gray. There are Play Ball events sponsored by USA Baseball and USA Softball happening from coast to coast throughout the year, so every ballplayer can cash in on these exciting opportunities.

MLB has scheduled several events specifically designed for female baseball and softball players in 2018, including a pair of one-day clinics hosted by softball legend and former Olympic gold medalist Jennie Finch. The first of these takes place on February 24 at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. and is a great way for girls to sharpen their skills between the foul lines. That same day, there's also a softball clinic hosted by former Rawlings Gold Glove winner AJ Andrews at the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy.

Not only did these trendsetting players get to play the game they love, they also learned from some of the brightest minds in the sport, working with current and former Women's National Team players and coaching staff to hone their game.

The Trailblazer Series is back for a second year, allowing another set of roughly 100 girls to live out their dreams in a tournament held over Jackie Robinson Day Weekend in April.

"Every single day we're reading about a new trailblazer," said Finch. "And that could be any one of us. Seeing young girls break the glass ceiling, it's an exciting time for our game all across the board."

Similarly-specialized showcases and clinics for girls will be held all year long, such as a Play Ball event at the Women's College World Series, the Elite Development Invitational and, for the first time ever, the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series at the end of May. These events give girls a greater opportunity to follow their ambitions and work toward an equal, diamond-filled future.

Dylan Hornik is a reporter for Major League Baseball.

Urban Invitational renamed Andre Dawson Classic

Annual tournament showcases historically black college and university teams
MLB.com

Major League Baseball's annual collegiate tournament designed to highlight baseball programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), formerly known as the Urban Invitational, has been renamed the Andre Dawson Classic.

Dawson, who enjoyed a 21-year big league career as an outfielder with the Expos, Cubs, Red Sox and Marlins and is one of two HBCU alumni who are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, was drafted out of Florida A&M University in 1975. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in '77 and the NL Most Valuable Player Award in '87, was an eight-time All-Star and an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner. He is one of five players to hit at least 400 home runs (438) and steal 300 bases (314), along with Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran.

Major League Baseball's annual collegiate tournament designed to highlight baseball programs at historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs), formerly known as the Urban Invitational, has been renamed the Andre Dawson Classic.

Dawson, who enjoyed a 21-year big league career as an outfielder with the Expos, Cubs, Red Sox and Marlins and is one of two HBCU alumni who are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, was drafted out of Florida A&M University in 1975. He won the National League Rookie of the Year Award in '77 and the NL Most Valuable Player Award in '87, was an eight-time All-Star and an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner. He is one of five players to hit at least 400 home runs (438) and steal 300 bases (314), along with Willie Mays, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez and Carlos Beltran.

Video: Celebrating Dawson during Black History Month

"It is with the utmost appreciation that I take this opportunity to thank MLB for this honor," said Dawson, who along with Southern University's Lou Brock represent HBCU alumni in the Hall of Fame. "I am a product of an HBCU program that provided me an opportunity to pursue a college education while chasing a childhood dream. I am both honored and humbled to play a role in empowering students to be leaders in their communities and strive to improve and impact the lives of others."

This year's tournament will take place from Feb. 16-18, and will feature six HBCU teams -- Alabama State University (second appearance), Alcorn State University (fourth appearance), Grambling State University (seventh appearance), Prairie View A&M University (fourth appearance), Southern University (11th appearance) and the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (first appearance) -- as well as the University of New Orleans (fifth appearance) and University of Illinois at Chicago (second appearance).

Video: FLA@PHI: Dawson's 400th home run in National League

The majority of the games will take place at the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy, with some contests also taking place at Maestri Field, home of the University of New Orleans baseball team. Two of the games played on Saturday, Feb. 17, will be aired live on MLB Network and MLB.com.

Along with Dawson, Blue Jays outfielder Curtis Granderson, former MLB All-Star Dmitri Young and former American League Manager of the Year Jerry Manuel (currently an MLB youth programs consultant) will make special appearances during the tournament.

The group of six HBCU teams in this year's field represents the highest number of teams in the 11-year history of the tournament. More than 25 HBCU players who have participated in the tournament have been selected in the MLB Draft. In addition, 22 players on this year's tournament rosters are alumni of MLB Youth Academies, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) or MLB Amateur development camps.

Manny Randhawa is a reporter for MLB.com based in Denver. Follow him on Twitter at @MannyOnMLB.

Chicago Cubs

Manfred, mayors renew Play Ball partnership

Boys and Girls Clubs of America to participate in youth initiatives
MLB.com

WASHINGTON -- Since its creation in 2015, "Play Ball Summer" continued to grow into one of Major League Baseball's most successful youth initiatives by working in conjunction with the United States Conference of Mayors. Last year, a record number of mayors hosted a record number of children at Play Ball Summer events in nearly all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Commissioner Rob Manfred called the partnership between MLB and the U.S. Conference of Mayors one of the best decisions he has made during his tenure, as he announced on Wednesday the partnership will be renewed through 2020. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the official charity of MLB, will also be involved in MLB's renewed efforts with the mayors.

WASHINGTON -- Since its creation in 2015, "Play Ball Summer" continued to grow into one of Major League Baseball's most successful youth initiatives by working in conjunction with the United States Conference of Mayors. Last year, a record number of mayors hosted a record number of children at Play Ball Summer events in nearly all 50 states and Puerto Rico.

Commissioner Rob Manfred called the partnership between MLB and the U.S. Conference of Mayors one of the best decisions he has made during his tenure, as he announced on Wednesday the partnership will be renewed through 2020. The Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the official charity of MLB, will also be involved in MLB's renewed efforts with the mayors.

More on Play Ball

"From Day One, one of my most important priorities was to increase the engagement of young people with what we regard to be the greatest game in the world," Manfred said in D.C. on Wednesday at the U.S. Conference of Mayors Winter Meeting.

Video: Former Angels GM Tony Reagins talks Play Ball Summer

Play Ball Summer, which is a part of MLB's Play Ball initiative, puts on community events meant to engage citizens, families and city departments to participate and connect them to baseball and softball. Play Ball events have become MLB's signature youth engagement activity. Since Play Ball Summer's inception, hundreds of mayors have hosted more than 60,000 kids at these events in their communities, which often include fun activities such as playing catch, running the bases and bat and ball games.

Adding the Boys & Girls Clubs to the fold should only strengthen participation, considering the groups will sometimes collaborate and co-host events with local mayors.

"What's great about the Boys & Girls Clubs is they have an audience that's already captivated and already engaged," said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs. "The mayors are going to be doing the events, and the Boys & Girls Clubs are easy partners because they have the kids to fill those events and get more kids playing baseball."

The partnership should continue to grow the games of baseball and softball even more during the next few years as participation increases. Baseball and softball combined to rank as the most participated team sport in the U.S. in 2016, according to the annual Topline Participation Report produced by the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

"That's what's exciting," Reagins said. "The mayors are really excited about this addition and bringing it back to their communities. The mayors are the backbones of their communities. They're city leaders. And they are well-connected to most organizations in their cities. It makes a lot of sense that that synergy created between the three groups, getting more young people playing our game, is starting to become real."

Jamal Collier covers the Nationals for MLB.com. Follow him on Twitter at @jamalcollier.

Lindor on R.B.I. 18 cover: 'It's a huge honor'

Iconic game's latest update includes franchise mode, Home Run Derby and historic players
MLB.com

CLEVELAND -- After setting down an oversized rendering of the new R.B.I. Baseball 18 cover at Tribe Fest this weekend, Francisco Lindor was asked if he is as good at video games as he is at playing shortstop for the Indians. Lindor did not hesitate at all with his answer.

"I'll take on anybody," said Lindor, who then laughed. "No, my nephew beats me all the time."

CLEVELAND -- After setting down an oversized rendering of the new R.B.I. Baseball 18 cover at Tribe Fest this weekend, Francisco Lindor was asked if he is as good at video games as he is at playing shortstop for the Indians. Lindor did not hesitate at all with his answer.

"I'll take on anybody," said Lindor, who then laughed. "No, my nephew beats me all the time."

Lindor will have a chance to reignite that family rivalry this March, when R.B.I. 18 is released worldwide, not only with the Tribe's energetic shortstop on the cover, but with an array of new features. The iconic video game, which was relaunched in 2014 by Major League Baseball, will introduce a franchise mode, Home Run Derby and historic players to the latest update.

R.B.I. Baseball 18

R.B.I. 18 will be available for PlayStation 4, the Xbox One family of devices, Nintendo Switch, iPhone, iPad and Android-supported phones and tablets. While the game is continuing to introduce more realistic elements into the presentation, it is also staying true to what has made R.B.I. Baseball so popular among fans: Fast-paced play and easy-to-use controls.

Tweet from @Indians: Your RBI Baseball 18 cover athlete:@Lindor12BC! pic.twitter.com/A8H6XnhaiV

Prior to the selection of Lindor, R.B.I. Baseball chose Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager (2017), Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts ('16) and Cubs first baseman Anthony Rizzo ('15) as its cover athletes. Lindor, who was shown the newest cover at Tribe Fest on Saturday in Cleveland, was thrilled to have the Indians represented on the newest edition.

"It means a lot," Lindor said. "I love this organization. I love the city of Cleveland, and being on the cover of R.B.I. Baseball 18 and representing them, it's a huge honor."

Video: Lindor proud to grace R.B.I. Baseball 18 cover

Here are some of the updates R.B.I. fans can look forward to in the new version:

Franchise mode
Fans will have the ability to take total control over their favorite MLB team. That means making trades, signing free agents or calling up rookies, among other options, over a span of multiple seasons. There will be a new player progression system that allows players in the game to develop, improve over time and eventually retire.

Home Run Derby
Gamers will now have the option to take on a friend or go head-to-head with the CPU in Derby environment. Included will be a leaderboard to see how a fan's skills stack up against their friends or other gamers around the globe.

MLB legends
More than 100 retired MLB stars will be available for a gamer's team in franchise mode and other game features. Some of the names available include Jeff Bagwell, Ernie Banks, Johnny Bench, George Brett, Bob Feller, Reggie Jackson, Chipper Jones, Nolan Ryan, Ozzie Smith and Ted Williams.

Those are the three main areas of change, but the R.B.I. 18 will be enhanced in other ways, too.

The pool of authentic MLB players will come with completely redesigned player models, including more than 300 digitally modeled likenesses. Also included will be hundreds of new animations and player-specific animations for a new in-game experience. The ballparks will have enhanced lighting, textures, 3-D crowd elements and new dynamic camera angles, along with specifically-crafted cinematic sequences for all 30 MLB stadiums.

Tweet from @Indians: Hang on to that jersey, kid. #TribeFest pic.twitter.com/ivHoEQgfJQ

The user experience will include an online multiplayer option, allowing players to jump into ranked and friendly exhibitions with friends and others around the world. The game's soundtrack will be updated with new music from more than a dozen popular recording artists, and the team rosters can be kept up-to-date throughout the 2018 season, even in franchise mode.

Visit rbigame.com and follow @RBIGame on Twitter for more information.

Count Lindor among those who are looking forward to the launch of R.B.I. Baseball 18.

"It's fun," said the Indians shortstop. "I love whenever you can play against somebody and see what they've got. Competition, wherever it is, it's always cool."

Video: Lindor thrilled to be on R.B.I. 18 cover art

Jordan Bastian has covered the Indians for MLB.com since 2011, and previously covered the Blue Jays from 2006-10. Read his blog, Major League Bastian, follow him on Twitter @MLBastian and Facebook.

Cleveland Indians, Francisco Lindor

Lindor excited about landing on R.B.I. 18 cover

Indians' rising star among the faces and ambassadors of the game
MLB.com

CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor leaned over to examine the large poster that had just been unveiled to his left at Tribe Fest on Saturday. When Tom Hamilton, the radio voice of the Indians, asked the young shortstop what he thought of the new cover for R.B.I. Baseball 18, Lindor cracked a smile.

"I love it. I love it," Lindor said amid cheers from his audience at the Huntington Convention Center. "They made me look good in that picture. So, thank you, R.B.I. for making me look a lot better."

CLEVELAND -- Francisco Lindor leaned over to examine the large poster that had just been unveiled to his left at Tribe Fest on Saturday. When Tom Hamilton, the radio voice of the Indians, asked the young shortstop what he thought of the new cover for R.B.I. Baseball 18, Lindor cracked a smile.

"I love it. I love it," Lindor said amid cheers from his audience at the Huntington Convention Center. "They made me look good in that picture. So, thank you, R.B.I. for making me look a lot better."

Lindor was announced as the new cover athlete for R.B.I. Baseball's latest installment at the Indians' annual fan fest, and the selection was more than fitting. Over the past three seasons, Cleveland's dynamic shortstop has quickly established himself not only as one of the faces of Major League Baseball, but as an ambassador for the game.

R.B.I. Baseball 18

When the idea of playing baseball for a living began to take hold of Lindor's childhood dreams, he did not simply want to reach the Majors. The shortstop is not shy about saying he always envisioned himself becoming one of the best players in the game, as well as an inspiration to kids.

Being on the R.B.I. 18 cover is another way for Lindor to keep extending his reach in the game.

"It's unreal. It's a dream. It's a blessing," Lindor said on Saturday. "I'm blessed to be playing this game -- and to have things like that [cover], that's a plus. I thank the Lord for everything, and I thank the Indians organization and everybody that made this posssible."

Lindor follows in the footsteps of past R.B.I. Baseball cover selections Corey Seager (2017), Mookie Betts ('16) and Anthony Rizzo ('15). The classic video game, which was relaunched by Major League Baseball in conjunction with the MLB Players' Association in '14, will be available this March for PlayStation 4, the Xbox One family of devices, Nintendo Switch, iPhone, iPad and Android-supported phones and tablets.

While Lindor said he would "take on anybody" who challenged him in R.B.I. Baseball 18, the shortstop admitted to having taken some losses on the video-game front lately back home.

"My nephew beats me all the time, so I definitely have got to get better," Lindor said with a laugh. "The first game I beat him, and I beat all my friends. It was like a group of four. Then, I don't know what happened. I went on a losing streak. I haven't won a game since. It's fun. I love whenever you can play against somebody and see what they've got. Competition, wherever it is, it's always cool."

Video: R.B.I. Baseball 18 reveals Lindor on the cover

Both on and off the field, Lindor has earned a reputation for his infectious enthusiasm. During Players' Weekend last August, for example, the Indians' shortstop went as far as wearing the nickname, "Mr. Smile," on the back of his jersey. Lindor describes himself as a big kid, and that has been on full display over his three seasons with the Tribe. After dynamic defensive plays or big hits, that smile quickly surfaces.

Behind the scenes, Lindor has strived since his rookie year to get involved in as much as possible -- especially if working with aspiring ballplayers is involved. He has participated in MLB Network's Play Ball series, started a charity program called, "Lindor's Smile Squad," to host children and adult athletes with disabilities at select home games, and has donated his time on numerous occasions to Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs, not only in Cleveland, but around the country.

All of that said, Lindor's off-field achievements alone did not clinch his place on the R.B.I. cover.

Lindor has developed into one of baseball's brightest young stars and one of the top shortstops in the game. The switch-hitter was the runner-up for the American League Rookie of the Year Award in 2015, an All-Star in '16 and '17, picked up both Gold and Platinum Glove Awards in '16 and added a Silver Slugger to his trophy case in '17. Two years ago, Lindor also helped lead the Indians to the World Series.

Cleveland won its second straight American League Central crown last season, as it racked up 102 victories and set an AL record with a 22-game winning streak. Along the way, Lindor set career highs in home runs (33), doubles (44), RBIs (89), slugging percentage (.505) and OPS (.842) in 159 games. He set the single-season club records for homers by a middle infielder and extra-base hits (81) for a shortstop. For his work, Lindor finished fifth in voting for the AL Most Valuable Player Award (two spots behind teammate Jose Ramirez).

Lindor said he is excited to see what 2018 has in store for the Tribe.

"We all know we can win it," Lindor said. "We all know we've got what it takes. We've been there. We just haven't closed it. I'm looking forward to it. I'm looking forward to being with my new teammates and my old teammates, and everybody throughout the whole season.

"It's so much fun going from Day 1 in Spring Training all the way to the last day of the season. A lot of things happen. Whether it's good things, bad things, a lot of things happen. A lot of good moments. A lot of time for me to smile, so I love it."

Cleveland Indians, Francisco Lindor

Manfred enshrined into Little League Hall

Commissioner has fostered youth-oriented initiatives during his tenure
Special to MLB.com

NEW ORLEANS -- Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred became the 56th person enshrined into the Little League Hall of Excellence on Friday at the 27th Little League International Congress.

Since he became Commissioner in 2015, Manfred has propelled youth-oriented initiatives throughout his tenure, including events such as Play Ball, MLB Pitch, Hit & Run, the Jr. Home Run Derby, All-Star Week events and Little League Days at Major League ballparks.

NEW ORLEANS -- Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred became the 56th person enshrined into the Little League Hall of Excellence on Friday at the 27th Little League International Congress.

Since he became Commissioner in 2015, Manfred has propelled youth-oriented initiatives throughout his tenure, including events such as Play Ball, MLB Pitch, Hit & Run, the Jr. Home Run Derby, All-Star Week events and Little League Days at Major League ballparks.

"It really is humbling for me," said Manfred, a native of Rome, N.Y., and MLB's first Commissioner to have previously played Little League baseball. "The idea of being honored like this by an organization like this is really amazing for me."

"We're honored to make [Manfred] a member of the Hall," Little League president and CEO Stephen D. Keener said.

"No, it's me that's honored," Manfred said.

Manfred, who visited New Orleans' Urban Youth Academy earlier on Friday, has committed to the growth of youth baseball and softball domestically and internationally, as best represented by his implementation of MLB's Little League Classic, when the Pirates played the Cardinals in August during the Little League World Series at Bowman Field in Williamsport, Pa., home of the LLWS.

Video: Manfred enshrined in Little League Hall of Excellence

With Manfred's continued pursuit to expand and enhance youth programs, MLB and Little League's strategic partnership will host the MLB Little League Classic in 2018 with a game between the Phillies and Mets on Aug. 19.

"What you've done is, you've put renewed energy into what they're doing at the local level," Keener told Manfred.

On Friday, those efforts were celebrated in vibrant New Orleans fashion to affix the city's energy into the ceremony. Manfred's enshrinement featured a local gospel choir welcoming Manfred, Keener and ESPN's Karl Ravech -- the host of the network's flagship baseball show, "Baseball Tonight," who moderated a discussion among himself, Manfred and Keener -- and a marching band leading the convocation in a parade onto New Orleans' energized city streets.

"Since his election, one of Commissioner Manfred's primary focuses has been on the growth of baseball at the youth level," Ravech said.

Manfred's enshrinement, and the three-way discussion, followed an hour-long presentation of Little League's past four years since the Congress' last congregation in Minneapolis four years ago.

Christian Boutwell is a contributor to MLB.com.

Dr. King a guiding light in Grissom's life

Civil rights leader's example inspires retired star to give back
MLB.com

This is the definitive weekend for Marquis Grissom. Not only was he born and raised in Atlanta -- the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- but he has done a bunch of things to enter the Hall of Fame of philanthropy before, during and after his 17-year Major League career.

Let's just say Grissom gave, and then gave some more. Even though he was just shy of a year old at the time of Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968, he knows a lot about the sacrifices of the iconic civil rights leader. His parents often discussed Dr. King's courage and convictions. He also met folks around town with firsthand knowledge of the man.

This is the definitive weekend for Marquis Grissom. Not only was he born and raised in Atlanta -- the birthplace of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. -- but he has done a bunch of things to enter the Hall of Fame of philanthropy before, during and after his 17-year Major League career.

Let's just say Grissom gave, and then gave some more. Even though he was just shy of a year old at the time of Dr. King's assassination on April 4, 1968, he knows a lot about the sacrifices of the iconic civil rights leader. His parents often discussed Dr. King's courage and convictions. He also met folks around town with firsthand knowledge of the man.

"Maynard Jackson was huge," Grissom said, referring to Atlanta's first black mayor and a national political giant. Then he mentioned others among the "Who's who" of the civil rights movement around northern Georgia. "Hosea Williams was huge. Julian Bond was huge. I met Bernice King [Dr. King's daughter] about 15 or 20 years ago -- and I hope to have that opportunity again, because she's one of my favorite people in Atlanta to hear talk about the civil rights movement. We've had so many pioneers who paved the way and fought for justice, but Dr. King was everything."

Video: Grissom remembers growing up in Atlanta

Grissom arrived in Arizona from Georgia on Thursday evening, joining other former Major League players at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Tempe, to serve as coaches for the five-day Dream Series, operated by MLB and USA Baseball.

The event, which debuted last year, hosts nearly 80 black high school pitchers and catchers from around the nation. They've gathered at the Angels' Spring Training facility to learn more than just the advanced mechanics of hitting, fielding, throwing and running. Besides former players -- such as stalwart catcher Charles Johnson and the eternally effective reliever LaTroy Hawkins -- umpires, scouts, college administrators and others inform these youngsters about possible careers in every aspect of the game.

Nice. Very nice. Nothing more so than this: Since Grissom has always kept the combination of his hometown and social consciousness close to his 50-year-old heart, he's overjoyed that the Dream Series culminates on Monday, which is the national holiday commemorating Dr. King's birthday. This is why he has to resist the temptation to pinch himself every second these days while he fulfills the wishes of the late Coretta Scott King, who urged folks to celebrate her husband's life yearly during this weekend by serving.

Youth pitchers, catchers live the 'Dream'

You know, like Grissom.

"Yes, sir. YES, SIR," Grissom said, chuckling over the phone. "I actually was laughing with the guys ... and I was telling them just about that, and it's just about us doing what we should be doing, right now. We're down here serving on the King holiday weekend. Not only that, but we've got all of these black kids out here who want to play baseball. These are the elite guys from across the country, so we've got talent out here. We've got some first-round Draft picks -- and for us to do this on HIS day, there's nothing better.

"The other thing is, for baseball to do this, and for us to be here with all of these former players for the holiday, this means the world to me."

It really does. This isn't to say Grissom didn't enjoy the thrills he experienced during his Major League career as a talented center fielder. He has four Gold Gloves to prove it. He also sprinted his way to 429 career stolen bases, capturing a pair of National League stolen-base titles along the way. Other highlights included two trips to the All-Star Game, his 1997 American League Championship Series MVP Award with the Indians, and the World Series ring he earned with his hometown Braves -- he caught the final out to seal the 1995 Fall Classic.

The bigger joys for Grissom came off the field. They mostly involved others, with a lot of help from the man himself.

Video: Grissom on Elite Development event in Florida

After Grissom turned pro following his collegiate career at Florida A&M, he bought houses for his parents and each of his 14 siblings. He also started college funds for the majority of his 42 nieces and nephews. Through it all, he kept moving toward building his own baseball academy in Atlanta to give black youngsters a chance to become the next Grissom and beyond. This is his academy's 11th year fielding teams, with about 120 kids from around the Atlanta area, ranging from ages 10-18. This past season, 11 players from the 18-year-old team received college scholarships -- with 10 of them heading to Division I schools.

Somewhere, Dr. King is applauding.

"Oh, man. He's had an impact on everything I'm doing -- and it goes back to the impact he had on my parents," said Grissom, referring to Marion and Julia Grissom, who grew up in Georgia picking cotton for 50 cents a day. While Julia died last year at 93, Marion is still around at 95. "He's hanging in there. He's a tough cat. You know my daddy was older than Dr. King, and the impact he had on both of my parents was transferred down to me to try to carry on his legacy. So that's why Dr. King is now everything to me -- especially since I was a kid growing up in Atlanta -- for what he stood for and what he represented.

"Most important [to me] was the character building. Everything I got from Dr. King was about character. I try to live my life that way, and I try to help and serve, and I try to do things that help the community and to help people."

Mission accomplished.

Actually, for Grissom, the mission never ends.

Washington Nationals, Cleveland Indians, Atlanta Braves

Manuels impacting Dream Series participants

Former big league skipper and sons help empower youngsters
MLB.com

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Former big league manager Jerry Manuel walked to the podium from the back of the crowded conference hall at the team hotel, grabbed the microphone and smiled at this year's class of Dream Series participants.

"Cool. Cool. Cool," Manuel said. "Are we ready? I think we are ready. Cool. Cool. Let's go."

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Former big league manager Jerry Manuel walked to the podium from the back of the crowded conference hall at the team hotel, grabbed the microphone and smiled at this year's class of Dream Series participants.

"Cool. Cool. Cool," Manuel said. "Are we ready? I think we are ready. Cool. Cool. Let's go."

• Youth pitchers, catchers live the 'Dream'

And while some of the teenage participants didn't know the famous baseball man who was about to address them during Thursday's hour-long welcome dinner, they paid attention. Manuel, the head instructor this week, spoke from the heart and quickly won them over by talking about character first and baseball second.

Everybody knows who Jerry is and what he stands for now.

"If you don't have the character, it's difficult to survive -- because this is a game of failure," Manuel said. "You'll never really find your gift unless there's character involved, and integrity and all those things. Now, your gift is there for you, but you can destroy it with one tweet, with one word in today's life. So that's kind of the message that I'm hoping to give out, and introduce them to why they call this the Dream Series -- with Martin Luther King [Jr.] and what this holiday means to some of us who have gone through it."

The Dream Series, an initiative from Major League Baseball and USA Baseball that features a diverse group of some of the nation's top high school pitching and catching prospects, began workouts on Friday and continues through Monday at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Angels. The series -- which is connected to Martin Luther King Jr. Day -- features on-hand coaching from former players, presentations on baseball-career opportunities on the professional and collegiate levels, and athletic assessments through the Prospect Development Pipeline Premier Events.

Joining Manuel in the Dream Series are sons, Anthony -- a Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) regional coordinator for MLB and coach during the event -- and Jerry Lorenzo, a renowned fashion designer, who made an appearance on Saturday.

"To be able to empower these young men's lives at this point in their careers and to be part of something that's [as] historic as this is an honor," Anthony said. "The great part is the kids are starting to understand who they are working with and they are open, they are turning into sponges and receiving the information. The goal is it's going make a change in history, and we are on that track."

Anthony was drafted by the Mets in 2005 and played five years of pro ball before he retired to spend more time with his family in Sacramento, Calif. He's on the board of the Jerry Manuel Foundation, an organization that helps the under-served get travel-ball experience, and is the head of baseball operations at the Alpha Charter High School in Sacramento County.

"I currently run that school -- or the program, if you will -- and it's an everyday thing," Anthony said. "We are working every single day on the field, along with in the classroom. We are just trying to develop young men and doing what we are supposed to do."

Jerry Lorenzo was responsible for the 'Fear of God' PLAY BALL-themed T-shirts and hats during the 2017 MLB All-Star Game in Miami and the World Series PLAY BALL event in Houston. He worked in the Dodgers' front office after college and later for a sports agency before making a name for himself in the fashion world.

"I pull from a lot of the references and the inspirations and the emotional connections I grew up with in the game," said Jerry Lorenzo. "It's drawing from Delino DeShields and the swag he brought to the game. It's guys like Darryl Strawberry and some of the guys I grew up looking up to."

The Manuels fashion themselves as a baseball family. They would not have it any other way.

"I've been in baseball since 1972, a lifetime, and I'm very satisfied and happy with the fact that I chose it," said the elder Manuel. "And I have to applaud Major League Baseball to trust us with making a dent, and making some inroads into kids' lives and lives of people [who] want to make the game what our culture or any culture considers cool."

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.

Youth pitchers, catchers live the 'Dream'

MLB program unites diverse group of prospects, big league mentors
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