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05/15/10 6:27 PM EST

Children a big part of Civil Rights Game

Former and current players take part in Wanna Play? event

CINCINNATI -- On a sun-splashed Saturday afternoon in Cincinnati, long considered the birthplace of professional baseball, a few hundred young children were seen honing their batting, pitching and fielding skills with help from a handful of current and former Major League ballplayers as part of Civil Rights Weekend.

"The smiles on the kids' faces and their enthusiasm says everything," said Barry Larkin, a former All-Star shortstop for the Cincinnati Reds and current MLB Network analyst. "It was perfect, man. It was nice to see. Hopefully participation in baseball in all different communities will increase."

The kids were participating in the Wanna Play? Spectacular and Youth Summit, a free event on Fountain Square, just a few blocks from Great American Ball Park and held hours before the annual Civil Rights Game between the Reds and St. Louis Cardinals.

Wanna Play? featured batting cages, Speed Pitch and base running and catching drills. A gospel choir and renowned jazz saxophonist BK Jackson also performed.

Reds first baseman Joey Votto and second baseman Brandon Phillips, former Red Eric Davis, former Red and current Cardinals infielder Felipe Lopez, MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds and Capt. Josh Holden, a former Reds Minor Leaguer and Iraq War veteran, joined Larkin in facilitating a pair of clinics during which kids learned fielding, base running, throwing and conditioning skills.

A Q&A session was held later giving youngsters an opportunity to ask questions of the current and former big leaguers.

The underlying theme of Wanna Play? was Major League Baseball's renewed efforts to recapture the hearts and minds of America's youth, in particular African-American kids, and reintroduce them to our National Pastime.

Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations, attended Saturday's event, as did Commissioner Bud Selig and other dignitaries.

Solomon said he was encouraged to see so many youngsters enjoying the game of baseball on Saturday.

"It was more than nice, it's essential," Solomon said. "Kids are the lifeblood of our sport, of any sport. We need to find anybody who has the intent an opportunity to find his or her place in baseball. The worst poverty is the poverty of no hope."

Wanna Play? is an integral part of the festivities associated with the Civil Rights Game, which is being held in Cincinnati for the second consecutive year.

Baseball's role in the Civil Rights movement was a very visible part of the Wanna Play? event, with a video chronicling Jackie Robinson's breaking of the color barrier playing on a large video screen atop an adjacent building and men in Negro Leagues uniforms interacting with kids.

In brief remarks made prior to the Q&A session, Selig stressed the significance of the Civil Rights Weekend in Cincinnati.

"Baseball played a pivotal role in the civil rights movement," Selig said. "I believe Jackie Robinson's arrival in the spring of 1947 was baseball's proudest moment. I'd like to thank [Reds president and CEO] Bob Castellini and the Reds organization for a great job in putting this on."

Larkin added, "A lot of us are here because of those who came before us. Jackie Robinson, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks, all the people who stood up for equality. It's their efforts that have helped us progress to where we are today."

During the Q&A session, players were asked questions by kids in the audience, ranging from, "Who is your favorite player?" and "What did it feel like to hit your first home run?" to "Do you think the Reds will make the playoffs?".

Davis drew applause when he responded affirmatively to the latter question.

Following Wanna Play?, more than 2,000 kids, youth baseball coaches and community leaders took part in the Delta Youth Baseball March, a five-block trek from Fountain Square to Great American Ball Park.

Larkin said his wish is that the momentum generated by the Civil Rights Game events will carry far beyond just this weekend.

"This is a wonderful event," Larkin said. "But, a lot of times when you do programs like this, the show leaves town and there's nothing to reinforce the efforts that are put in place. I don't believe that's the case here, and hopefully things will continue to help more kids get involved in the game."

Jeff Wallner is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.