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Birmingham Youth Get to ‘Play Ball’ with Major Leaguers at Regions Field  

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Campers learn the "Strongman Salute" during MLB's Play Ball youth engagement activity at Regions Park (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

By Solomon Crenshaw Jr. | For The Birmingham Times

Seeds were planted Tuesday afternoon at Regions Field in Birmingham Alabama. Not with a shovel or a spade, but with whiffleballs and foam bats.

Major League Baseball hosted Play Ball, its signature youth engagement activity for about 125 Birmingham children who were joined by Play Ball Ambassador Coach Ballgame and other special guests, as the group went through fun- and fitness-focused activities designed to show the many ways the game can be played.

The gathering was part of more than a dozen activities in Birmingham this week in tandem with MLB Tribute to The Negro Leagues on June 20 which features a regular season game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the San Francisco Giants at historic Rickwood Field.

Swinging Away during MLB’s Play Ball youth engagement activity at Regions Park (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

David James, Major League Baseball’s vice president of baseball and softball development in charge of baseball’s grassroots efforts, hopes the youngsters at Regions Field gleaned one thing from their experience.

“That the game is fun,” he said, pointing out that plastic and foam bat and ball sets where used for a specific purpose. “For a lot of these kids, this is their first time participating in sticking-and-ball sport (and if) they get hit with the ball, it doesn’t hurt. We’re gonna send every kid home with that bat-and-ball set with the hope that they go back in the back yard and start to play [and] … as they continue to play, they go, ‘Okay, I was at this Play Ball event. What’s the next step for me?’”

Former San Francisco Giant Randy Winn remembered playing a game called Strikeout as a child with his brother. The pair took turns pretending to be four baseball stars taking cuts at pitches from his sibling.

“Did I imagine being a Major League player? Yeah, every day in front of my house,” Winn said. “Did I think it was a reality? No, I didn’t. I was not the highest draft pick. I didn’t even get a scholarship to go to college to play baseball. I just played and I loved the game.”

Winn recalled his father coaching him and the son taking time to play and improve.

“I was fortunate enough and lucky enough to make it to the Major Leagues and played for a very long time,” he said. “But, for me, youth baseball is about fun. It’s about these voices, like the kids yelling in the background. To me, that’s what Play Ball is, and that’s what youth baseball is.”

Jeffrey Leonard, former San Francisco Giants player, hoped the campers came away with joy. (Solomon Crenshaw Jr., For The Birmingham Times)

Another former Giant, Jeffrey Leonard, is a community ambassador with the San Francisco ballclub. He acknowledged that there are fewer Black players now than in his youth.

“Suddenly, they don’t have as many heroes to look forward to and watch them on TV and say, ‘I wanna be like So-and-so.’” Leonard said. “When I grew up, it was different.

“To play baseball, you have to have a field to play catch, to hit the ball,” he said. “But it (baseball) has to be handed down. The parent, the uncle, the aunt has to hand it down and teach them and show them the joy in this game and the history of this game. I think once that starts again, the numbers will go up.”

Beyond fun, Leonard hopes the youth at Regions Field left having experienced joy.

“Joy lasts longer than happiness,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking for. It’s kind of like seeing that kid catch his first ball in the air, a flyball, or get his first hit or make contact. That moment, look at their faces, man, and watch the joy in them. They’re just running around. Oh.

“Living in this world is gonna be a tough. It’s gonna be a lot of bad days,” the former major leaguer said. “But you’ve got to take advantage of the good days and you try to find things that give you more good days. That’s what I’m hoping that they took away from it, that is a fun game. Anybody can play it. You have teammates. It’s just great.”