Tampa Bay Rays' star Evan Longoria preaches importance of reading to children at Bradenton library

BRADENTON -- Before a packed crowd in the Manatee County Central Library, Evan Longoria read about frogs playing baseball, Babe Ruth and Father's Day.

It was the first time he had read "Froggy Plays T-ball" as part of "Reading Your Way to the Ballpark," the Reading With the Rays summer program, he said. The team keeps five or six books in rotation and he gets to choose which ones he wants to read.

Being his first time reading the book, he stumbled over a few of the unusual names.

"There's a lot of funny names in this book," he said after he got to the end. "A lot of tongue twisters."

More than 300 people packed into the library on Monday to see the third baseman read. Longoria, who encourages children to find a subject they like to read about, visits two participating libraries every year in between baseball games. Chris O'Hara, the youth services coordinator for the library, said this was the biggest crowd of children he's seen in the library.

"It's great to see them so excited to be in the library," O'Hara said.

He teased the children and families as he introduced Longoria.

"You're all here 'cause you came to the library to get some books, right? And there just happens to be a baseball player here, right?" he said.

"Reading With the Rays" is a program that rewards children who visit libraries and read during the summer. The baseball team partners with Suncoast Credit Union on the initiative. Kids can move around the bases of a gamecard by logging reading hours. All they have to do is select books from home or the library, then track their hours and the books they read. Once a base is reached, an adult initials the card. Kids can bring the cards into any Manatee County library to collect rewards.

Prizes range from an Evan Longoria poster by reaching First Base to two tickets to a Rays' game at Tropicana Field by getting to home plate.

"It doesn't matter what you read, as long as you read," Longoria told the students. "Read what you like."

At first, Longoria said the program was just another community outreach program to him. But now, with two children of his own, Longoria sees the value of the program even more. In addition to reading about frogs playing T-ball, Longoria read a book called "Home Run: The Story of Babe Ruth" and "A Wild Father's Day."

"All of you guys, make sure you give your father a hug for Father's Day," he said before launching into the book, which included Longoria having to make animal noises, which caused an uproar of laughter from the children.

After he finished reading, Longoria quizzed the students on the books, on baseball and on the reading program before handing out prizes that included arms sleeves and bobble head dolls.

AJ Thompson, a 13-year-old Bradenton resident who will start eighth grade at King Middle School next fall, likes to read about sports, too.

"I don't get bored reading about sports because it's something I like," he said.

"It helps you learn more words," said Jesse Martin, another 13-year-old who will start eighth grade at King in the fall.

AJ and Jesse watched Longoria from the back section of the second floor, around a table with 9-year-old Matthew Navarro and 13-year-old Jake Evans. During the summer, the boys typically like to be outside, on dirt bikers and four-wheelers.

And, of course, watch baseball.

Meghin Delaney, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081. Follow her on Twitter @MeghinDelaney.