TAMPA — Mychal Givens arrived at the West Tampa Little League fields at 6 a.m. Saturday to begin transitioning the complex for a day of Blitzball.
Givens, a former Plant High standout and current Baltimore Orioles relief pitcher, began playing baseball on these same fields.
"Actually walking the grounds," Givens said. "I kind of feel like I'm walking back through my roots from when I was 3 years old starting to play baseball here."
On this day, Givens is bringing players from all over the area to West Tampa for his second Givens Back Foundation Blitzball tournament, and he asked several major leaguers and top prospects to help him.
What's Blitzball? Think Wiffle ball but instead of the ball having hollow slits, a Blitzball is a neon yellow ball with a surface made up of 72 hexagonal sides that, when gripped and thrown a certain way, can dance with even more break than it's Wiffle ball counterpart. Games are played on smaller fields, so for example, one Little League-sized field was transitioned into four fields.
Even a major leaguer has trouble hitting it. Just ask former Rays outfielder Mallex Smith, who flailed at pitches more than once while facing a team of traveling Blitzball players at the end of the afternoon.
"Did you see me try to hit today?" said Smith, who was traded to the Mariners last month. "Aw man. It creates a more even playing field, especially with someone who can make the ball dance. This is a weapon right here.
"But this is fun," Smith adds. "Just kind of humanizes the actual person from of being ballplayers. They can see us in a different light. And then you know it's special for them to just be around guys who are professionals. Ultimately, it's just fun to get out here and play like a kid again, with some kids. It brings back a really youthful time."
For Givens, an event centered around playing Blitzball is perfect. The event — which included 25 teams and about 150 participants from all different age levels — brought together people from all over the area, but skill levels matter very little because the movement that Blitzballs create doesn't discriminate in making hitters look foolish.
Rays outfielder Kevin Kiermaier's knees buckled in the batter's box. Preston Tucker, a former Plant teammate of Givens who played with the Astros and Braves, swung through a few offerings. And Plant grad and Astros farmhand Kyle Tucker, one of majors' top prospects, and Diamondbacks prospect Pavin Smith — the seventh overall pick in 2017 — were both caught shaking their heads while laughing at the same time.
Even Givens, whose best swing-and-miss pitch is his slider, said he didn't know where his pitches were going.
And that was the whole point, to bring people together to West Tampa to share in competition, fun and laughs.
"My whole foundation is about getting people together and this is about playing backyard baseball," said Givens, who will be going into his fifth season with the Orioles as the team's projected closer. "We're getting kids from all over the area and we're trying to change the definition of the word inner-city. Inner-city isn't the least privileged kids, it's where you're from. We're getting lots of kids from all over town together to meet up with each other and have fun playing baseball."
Along with his non-profit foundation, Givens, 28, has created his own youth baseball team called Inner City Baseball consisting of 11-year-olds from all over Tampa. He plans to start a new 11-year-old team every year while the existing teams grow.
"My team itself has kids from all over, from South Tampa, Belmont Heights, North Tampa, Town 'N Country and Temple Terrace," Givens said. "So they get to understand and realize that playing with your neighborhood friends is fine, but you can learn and have fun with people form all over."
It's clear that Givens' Tampa roots mean a lot to him. He easily rattles off impressive list of major leaguers from the city, and he wants this event to connect his generation to the next one.
"I grew up with the old school, with lots of great players from here like Wade Boggs and Tino Martinez, Fred McGriff, Gary Sheffield, Luis Gonzalez, Lou Piniella," he said. "We're trying to bring the old school back and try to have these kids understand where they come from and who paved the way."
Givens' Inner City Baseball teams are made up of kids who might not have the opportunity to play baseball. Givens said growing up, he saw many kids' development cut short because they didn't have the resources to continue their baseball careers as it began to cost more to play.
"This whole Blitzball tournament is about having fun and meeting kids and not how much money you have in your pocket," Givens said.
Proceeds from Saturday's event will be used to help his 12-year-old team go to Coopertown, where they will play in a tournament and visit the Baseball Hall of Fame. The following year, Givens hopes to take his team to the National Negro League Museum in Kansas City.
"I'm really passionate about the old school and knowing where you came from and where baseball started," Givens said. "We're just trying to get everybody connecting together again. Our next motto is going to be 'Strength through unity,' try to bring everybody together, no matter what color what background you are. We're just trying to bring everybody together, and try to be one huge family and have each other's backs."
Smith, whose community service in Tampa Bay earned him the Rays' Roberto Clemente nomination last season, held court on one field throughout the morning and his playful interaction drew a crowd throughout the day.
"It reinstates that coming outside and playing, you don't need much," Smith said. "You've got you're Wiffle ball, Wiffle bat, some kids out of the neighborhood, and you can have a good time. You don't necessarily need the real bat and the real ball, a real glove. You find what you can get your hands on."
Despite the trade that will send him to the Mariners this season, Smith said he will still be invested in the Tampa Bay area.
"Tampa is important to me," Smith said. "I like being in the community. This is where I spend my offseasons, and Florida is my home, so I really like to represent the state. I'm just kind of maneuvering my way throughout the state, not just one area to take care of. It may start in Tallahassee but it spreads through Florida, Georgia and Seattle."
Contact Eduardo A. Encina at [email protected] Follow @EddieInTheYard.