The Royals were in St. Petersburg, Fla., on Sunday afternoon, but there was also plenty of action behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City as several former players tossed the ball and offered tips to dozens of eager youngsters.
“Grab the ball like this, on the seams,” said former outfielder Willie Wilson. “You always want to grab the seams. That’s controlling the baseball.”
“The guys catching the ball, I don’t want you to just stand there,” Wilson continued. “That’s what we call waiting on a bus. We’re not on a corner. We want you to open your legs and get your hands ready to catch the ball.”
The afternoon tutorial, called Play Ball KC, was part of an initiative by Major League Baseball to kindle interest in the game among young people. Every kid that attended received a free T-shirt.
“The commissioner came to the U.S. Conference of Mayors and asked the mayors to do something like this in their cities, particularly those who had teams,” said Kansas City Mayor Sly James, who also participated. “We said sure. It’s a way to get the kids out into the parks and get them out there with some adults and former players, and just basically let them know there’s something good to do on a Sunday afternoon.”
Former outfielder Les Norman, who played for the Royals in the mid-1990s, had the rapt attention of his audience as he related how he got the feel of every stadium he played.
“In Chicago, at Wrigley Field, that (outfield) wall is made of brick, and I don’t want to run into that wall, right?” he said. “Here’s all the things you should know when you get to the ballpark. You should know how far the fence is from home plate, how high the fence is. Is there a warning track? I want to know where the sun is that time of day. I want to know where the wind is blowing. I want to know how thick the grass is. I want to know who’s pitching on my team. Is it a guy that strikes out a lot of people or is it a guy who people hit a lot?”
Former pitcher Dennis Leonard said it was a good way to spend a Sunday afternoon.
“Just to play catch and maybe do some fly balls and ground balls,” he said. “To try to get these kids interested not only in the love of baseball but playing baseball also. A lot of these parents, I think, were their age when we played, but that’s OK.”
Lee’s Summit middle-schooler Avery Williams, 13, aspires to be a professional baseball player someday, and he said it was fun to get in some practice with former first baseman John Mayberry.
“He taught us to keep our legs open and how to field the ball,” Avery said.
Several girls attended the session, as well, including a high school sophomore who said she quit her school’s ball team because of an injury.
“You love baseball?” Avery asked her. “Why don’t you try to get back in it? It’s not too late. You got your whole life ahead of you. Give it another try. Don’t quit.”
Mayberry urged the youngsters to stay focused in school and to work hard, but he added there’s something special about baseball.
“Once you start you can never get rid of it,” he said. “Once it gets in your heart, you’ll be the ones sitting in the Royals’ stands 50 years from now. You’ll be out there because why? You started right here.”