The Tampa Bay Rays are increasing their impact in the community, offering incentives for reading that could net children and their parents game tickets.
Now in its 15th year, Reading with the Rays is a community program that encourages area children to read when school is out of session, mitigating the effects of the “summer slide.” The summer slide refers to the well-documented loss of learning that occurs when kids take two months away from school.
During Thursday’s St. Petersburg City Council meeting, Rays President Brian Auld and David Egles, executive director of the Rays Baseball Foundation, explained to council members how the organization’s incentive-based reading program has significantly expanded throughout the region. Auld noted that as a former fourth-grade teacher, he has witnessed the effects of the summer slide firsthand.
“This has been absolutely heartwarming,” said Auld. “You can get lost, when you’re playing 162 games a year, in the wins and losses and forget about what really matters.
“The most important thing about having a baseball team is not to make people in Boston sad – although this morning (Thursday) I’m happy that we did that – but to make sure that we do better by all of our communities … and that’s what the power of sports can be.”
Egles said that as “one of the best things in town all of the time, but especially in the summer,” the team realized they could use the game of baseball and leverage their platform to show area children that “reading is cool.”
The organization developed a two-pronged approach to help combat the summer slide, starting with incentives. Egles explained that the foundation chose an incremental approach to build momentum rather than just offering a grand prize for children who achieve the overall goal of reading for 24 hours over the summer months.
Through a partnership with local libraries, pre-kindergarten through 12th-grade students receive a card emblazoned with a baseball diamond – and DJ Kitty – to track their progress. Reading for three hours will get a kid on first base, which earns them a foldable frisbee. Another five hours and they reach second, receiving a bracelet. Touching third base takes seven more hours for a keychain, and the homestretch is nine additional hours of reading.
Once a student reaches the 24-hour goal, verified by a parent or guardian’s signature, they receive a voucher for two tickets to watch the defending American League East champs. As Auld noted at the onset of the presentation, the team has recently moved into second place in the current standings.
“Which makes it all the more easy for us to show up here in council’s chambers,” said Auld.
The team is not offering nosebleed seats either, as the tickets are for the Lower Reserved level.
Councilmember Ed Montanari noted that children picking up their prizes from local libraries could serve as a catalyst for future trips and more reading.
“It’s just genius the way you all put this together,” said Montanari. “It gets people into our libraries, and young kids can learn the joy of reading.”
Egles noted the program’s recent growth, particularly after the onset of Covid. Previously only offered to students in Pinellas and Hillsborough Counties, Reading with the Rays now extends to nine counties throughout the region. The initiative has seen participation increase from 15,000 to 45,000 children annually.
Since its inception in 2007, the program has served over 400,000 area students, who have totaled over 2.55 million hours of summer reading.
During pandemic closures, Egles said, the foundation expanded the initiative beyond summer to help compensate for the lack of time in classrooms. Players also recorded videos for students, and the organization began offering programming and events in both English and Spanish.
Egles said those events have become so popular and well-received that phenom shortstop Wander Franco approached the team with his desire to participate.
“In addition to increasing reading levels, we’re seeing confidence levels improve,” said Egles. “We’re seeing families come closer together, which is probably one of my favorite things of the program and one of my favorite programs that we do.”
Councilmember Lisset Hanewicz credited the Rays for offering bilingual programming, noting baseball’s popularity in the Hispanic community. Not only will the program help non-native English speakers learn the language, but she also called the data showing the loss of reading skills over the summer months “shocking.”
Councilmember Copley Gerdes said St. Petersburg is lucky to have a community partner like the Rays. As a member of three local foundations, Gerdes said, he frequently attends charity events, and team officials “are at every single one of them.” He added that the team’s philanthropic efforts extend far beyond childhood programs.
“When we think about partners inside the City of St. Petersburg – the Rays show up, man,” said Gerdes. “I hope people see it the way I see it because it’s impactful, and it’s a broad spectrum of how the Rays are impacting the community.”