Ex-players, kids have a ball at Youth Summit
Hammonds, Floyd, Clark and Bonilla on hand as volunteers
ATLANTA -- Jeffrey Hammonds took his place on the fake mound, Bobby Bonilla sat on a bucket behind home plate, Tony Clark worked the microphone in the outfield and Cliff Floyd coached third base for what began as a smattering of kids taking part in an interactive Wiffle Ball game.
Then, as the laughs grew and the excitement level resonated through Centennial Olympic Park, more and more participants suddenly began to filter in.
"That's what it's about, just drawing attention," said Hammonds, who spent 13 years in the big leagues. "If we can just wake some people up, let them know that MLB is really trying to do something for not only the kids, but really trying to grow the game here in America, that's all we can do."
More kids meant more plastic baseballs thrown from the former outfielder's right arm on this Saturday afternoon. But it was also symbolic of how much further the presence of former players -- former All-Star players, in fact -- can take Major League Baseball's efforts to continue to provide the game for America's younger generation.
That's what this Youth Summit, which took place the day before the Delta Civil Rights Game, was all about.
"When they call, we come," Hammonds said. "And when we come, we don't come because we have to, [but] because we want to. If we can come out here and just show that we're all real people, we all grew up the same way, and we can give back to this game -- a game that's been so great to us. If we can do that, man, that's what it's all about."
The game put on by Floyd, Hammonds, Clark and Bonilla -- who combined made nine trips to the All-Star Game in their playing days -- was only part of the activities put on for hundreds of kids who showed up for the free event on Saturday.
There were batting cages.
There were pitching stations.
There was Nintendo Wii.
There was a U.S. Army station with a rock wall and racecar simulator.
And there was a Q&A session with the four former All-Stars, as well as "Grey's Anatomy" actor Jesse Williams, MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon and representatives from the Boys & Girls Club of America and the U.S. Army.
"That's one of the things that we try to emphasize in baseball is that a lot of our African-American players -- players in general -- need to go back into the communities," said Solomon. "One of the problems with making a lot of money now in baseball -- a lot of people do not give back to the community as much as back in the old days. That is one thing that we have to do is get out in the community so the kids can look at you, ask you questions, learn that you're not Superman."
The Youth Summit, presented by "Wanna Play?" and the U.S. Army, was part of a weekend of events leading up to the fifth annual Civil Rights Game, which will take place Sunday at 1:35 p.m. ET at Turner Field between the Phillies and Braves.
The events and corresponding game are about remembering those who fought for key social issues on and off the field, but also about addressing the future. That was the message from Friday's Baseball and the Civil Rights Movement Roundtable Discussion, and that's what Saturday's Youth Summit put into action.
"You have to pave the way, you have to show these kids that baseball is a great sport," Floyd said. "Get involved. You want to get better? Play. You want to learn how to hit? Hit more. You want to learn how to run? Run every day. But you can say some things sometimes and everybody goes, 'Duh.' No, you need to hear it, and you need to see the vision."
Somebody like Max Webb, a member of the Jerry Clark Foundation's Junior Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program -- who will tell you he just turned 10 on Thursday -- was able to see that vision.
"It was really cool," Webb said, "just to be able to come out here and have lots of fun and to get to meet them."
Webb had a pretty memorable encounter with Bonilla, the six-time All-Star third baseman and outfielder who served as catcher for the day.
Webb hit an infield popup that landed between the pitcher's mound and home plate and allowed him to reach second base. With the ball in Bonilla's hand, Webb stood between second and third base, then decided to try and swipe an extra bag, but came up short.
Bonilla gunned him down, then playfully showboated, "I played this game, son! Don't you know? I played this game!"
Everyone laughed -- then they just kept playing.
"We were here to encourage kids to play baseball," Bonilla said, "and they were coming out. So we're happy about that."
Alden Gonzalez is a reporter for MLB.com. Read his columns and his blog, listen to his podcast and follow him on Twitter. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.