Feature Article - January 2018
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Kids Just Wanna Have Fun

But the Best Youth Sports Programs Also Educate

By Rick Dandes

Batter Up: Play Ball

When Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred came on board, one of his key initiatives was for baseball to re-engage with young people. His strong belief was that in order to cultivate fans at the younger age group you have to first involve them in youth baseball or softball.

"That is the premise of our main engagement piece for kids, which is Play Ball," said David James, vice president, Youth Programs, MLB.

The program, now 2.5 years old, has been a smashing success, James said. Play Ball works in conjunction with USA Baseball and USA Softball, the governing bodies in the United States for both sports.

"We describe the program as an organized recess," James said. "Using plastic bats and balls, we do events all over the country where we engage kids in informal ways to play the game—homerun derby, running the bases, agilities, pop ups and grounders—the goal is to just make sure the kids are having fun. We are big at playing music while the event occurs, the popular music kids listen to."

In 2017 MLB conducted 26 events with a little more than 26,000 kids attending. "On top of that," James said, "all 30 clubs engage in Play Ball events throughout the year. The last two years we have dedicated a particular week in the season and called it Play Ball weekend, which gives our major league clubs the opportunity to do similar type events. Many clubs have taken it a bit further in a good way, where they reach out to their respective youth leagues in their markets and do a parade of kids in the stadium before the game."

Up to now the programs have been run through the major league clubs. This past spring, minor league baseball signed on, and a limited number activated it. In 2018, all 168 minor league clubs will have Play Ball events. "That gives us a much larger footprint," James said.

Also signing on is the United States Conference of Mayors, and they are doing Play Ball events. "We think they are a big partner," James said, "especially focusing on underserved kids and underserved communities because the municipal entity is the one, in a lot of markets, that owns the fields. So quite honestly, if a mayor likes the program, is impressed with it, he's telling his recreation department and owners of the property to get more kids out there to play."

Play Ball events are for kids 7 to 13 years old, boys and girls. "Most participants are 12 and under," James said. "Play Ball is a 90-minute event. The kids go through five stations on a 90-foot baseball diamond. The stations consist of a homerun derby, where kids just swing for the fences; the other station is pop up and grounders and our clinicians will split them up into groups … it is developing the basic muscle memories of the game. We do an agility station with the rope ladders and cones, and an obstacle course. The last station is running the bases. Kids rotate through all the stations.

"When they are done they get a Play Ball set, shirts," James said. "The neat thing is when the event is over, inevitably kids keep playing … just out there having fun. We are really enthused about kids at the event. The transition is to have them continue in the game."

MLB did some research on the participants and found out that a lot of kids that have come out to the events aren't currently playing in a league. "We've seen instances where a child has some natural ability and our staff might go up to the kid and say, 'Hey, you're pretty good. Where do you play?' And he will say, 'I'm not playing anywhere,'" James said. "So as part of playball.org there is an app that is called Play Ball Near You, and organizations like Little League, Pony League have made their databases available to us. You can go to the app and find the closest organized league that suits your child's purpose."

The hope, James said, "is that as Play Ball continues to evolve, separate from the large casual participation, it will spur more kids to sign up in league play, which is another step in building that foundation to future baseball and softball fans by way of them participating in the game."