ST. PETERSBURG -- Evan Longoria readily admits he probably didn't read as much as he should have as a kid. But the Rays' star third baseman has grown to understand the importance of encouraging children to read, and that's what brought him to the Pinellas Park Library on Wednesday afternoon.
Longoria helped kick off the sixth season of "Reading with the Rays -- Read Your Way to the Ballpark," an incentive-based program that provides prizes, including free tickets to a Rays game, for students who keep reading over the summer break.
"I didn't do enough of it as a kid growing up, and it's something that I look back upon now and kind of regret," Longoria said. "I know that there are some guys on the team, namely Sam Fuld, who I'm kind of envious of, because I know he did his summer reading, and now he's much better than me at the crossword puzzle.
"You have to drive yourself to read and understand that, although it may seem kind of tedious right now, it is definitely for your good in the future. It's definitely something that I strive to get better at and enjoy more as an adult. I think if you get into it more as a child or an adolescent, you'll enjoy it that much more when you grow up."
As part of his visit to the library, Longoria read two books -- "Bats in My Attic" and "If I Were a Jungle Animal" -- to the group of more than 100 children in attendance. He also asked them trivia questions regarding the Rays, the books he read and the summer reading program and handed out prizes to the winners.
"It is so important for kids to keep reading each summer," said Paula Godfrey, the Pinellas Public Library Cooperative's coordinator for special projects and grant services. "It really stops that summer slide that goes on, and to have someone like Evan come front and center, read to the kids, show them how important it is to him and his family and tell them how important it is for their lives, it's a great opportunity."
Longoria said he took a greater interest in the program after the birth of his daughter, Elle, in February. Instead of asking for cards at the baby shower, Longoria's girlfriend, Jaime Edmondson, asked each guest to bring a book. So they started a small library for their daughter and read to her on a regular basis.
"It's actually pretty cool to see her reactions and how she looks at the pages and pictures and stuff," Longoria said, smiling.
Longoria also got quite a reaction on Wednesday from the crowd that was squeezed into the library. The kids let out a loud cheer when he walked into the room and screamed out answers to his questions.
"You always kind of underestimate the influence that you have within the community until you see a group of kids like this," Longoria said. "They're the future. They are the most important people within the future community. So I think the earlier you can have a positive impact on them, whether it be through reading or getting them involved with outdoor activities and teaching them the importance of those things, the better off our future is going to be and the brighter it's going to be."
Tampa Bay has become Longoria's community. When he signed a contract extension this offseason that could keep him with the Rays until 2023, he not only made a long-term commitment to the team. He also made a long-term commitment to the community, one that he accepts and embraces on days like Wednesday.
"[I want] to show that I am involved, and to be not only one of the faces of the Rays, but a face within the community who can have a positive impact on the community," Longoria said. "There's a lot of athletes who just kind of do their job, and that's fine. But ever since I was able to have a larger, expanded role on the Rays, I kind of felt it was my job or my duty to expand my role within the community and branch out to as many different groups as I could.
"In that way, you're kind of touching all aspects of the community. I just feel like I'm more a part of the Tampa-St. Pete community by doing stuff like this, as opposed to just going to the Trop and going home."