Twenty years ago at this time of year, they were ballplayers at the peak of their careers, building toward the Marlins’ first World Series championship.
On Saturday, despite intermittent downpours, Bobby Bonilla, Cliff Floyd and Charles Johnson were among hundreds of people who gathered to build a playground for a South Florida community whose children will benefit from the healthy and creative outlet for their young minds and bodies.
Those ’97 Marlins stars were part of a crew of former players, including Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Dave Winfield, as well as Danys Baez, Jose Cruz Jr., Jeffrey Hammonds, Steve Rogers, Ramon Santiago, Kevin Slowey, Jose Veras and Major League Baseball Players Association Executive Director Tony Clark.
To build the playground, the MLBPA and its charitable arm, the Players Trust, joined forces with KaBOOM!, a non-profit dedicated to providing kids a childhood filled with balanced and active play, to build the playground, which will serve more than 1,800 children in Opa-Locka, a community northwest of Miami in Dade County.
“We went through rain, it was hot, but everybody was working together on one mission,” said Johnson, who was an All-Star and Gold Glove catcher for the Marlins’ 1997 World Series championship club. “It was uplifting. Everybody got their hands dirty, their shoes dirty and got right into it. The playground came out beautiful.”
In addition to the former players, more than 200 community volunteers lent their time, muscle and heart to give the kids of Opa-Locka a safe, fun environment to learn and grow.
“Today was a great day because you had major league ballplayers, people from the MLBPA office, the people from KaBOOM! and Room 2 Bloom, and all of the community volunteers coming together, pushing wheelbarrows, carrying sod, doing everything that needed to be done so these kids could have a playground,” Johnson said.
The new playground at Room 2 Bloom, an innovative child care center, was conceived by the Players Trust as a way to say “thank you” to the greater Miami area in anticipation of the warm welcome the All-Stars will receive on Tuesday when they take the field for the Mid-Summer Classic at Marlins Park.
“There were a lot of people working really hard for all the right reasons,” said Baez, who pitched for six Major League clubs over 10 years after defecting from Cuba in 1999 and has made his home in South Florida. “It’s always good to pay back. The communities where we play baseball support us directly or indirectly throughout our careers. It was a great idea, a great event.”
“Playing baseball in South Florida, growing up in the area, going to the University of Miami, I’ve received so much support from this community, so to return as an ex-player and get my hands dirty so these kids can have a fun, safe environment means a lot to me,” Johnson said.
Since 1996, KaBOOM! has built, improved and opened nearly 16,700 playgrounds, engaged more than one million volunteers, and served 8.5 million kids across America. Its philosophy is that play is central to a child’s ability to grow into a productive adult. It can transform children from sedentary, bored and solitary to physically, mentally and socially active.
“The Opa-Locka community now has a playground that the kids can truly enjoy,” said Dawson, an eight-time All-Star who played the final two seasons of his 21-year career with the Marlins. “They’re going to get a lot of benefit from it. Having a fun, healthy environment where kids can play and develop themselves goes a long way in helping build their confidence and self-esteem.
In addition to witnessing the construction of their new playground and enjoying games and a barbecue, local kids attending the event were also offered free eye exams by the Players Trust in partnership with Our Children’s Vision, a global campaign dedicated to ensuring all children, regardless of their economic status, gender or geographical location, should have access to eye care.
Our Children’s Vision was a perfect partner for the playground build, because research shows that children who increase their outdoor activities by slightly more than an hour a day will decrease their chances of developing nearsightedness.