Youth Baseball: RBI program teaches life skills through experiences around the diamond
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While working as an MLB scout in his native South Central Los Angeles in the late 1970s, John Young noticed something: The number of talented baseball players coming out of the area had decreased significantly from when Young had grown up there. With local youth enticed by other activities, including street gangs, Young began his life's work, developing a comprehensive youth baseball program to increase participation in the sport and keep children involved in a positive, team-oriented activity.
Young's program, which began in 1989, is known as Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), an MLB-sponsored youth outreach program designed to promote participation in baseball, particularly among minorities. Though RBI is an international program in more than 150 cities across 11 countries, it has made an indelible impact in Western Pennsylvania, helping work toward the program's ultimate goals.
"It gets the kids more knowledgeable about the game; it gives them fundamentals," said Charles Saunders, who heads RBI Pittsburgh. "If they're more competitive at the game, if they get better at the game, they're going to have more fun playing the game, and then they might want to go play more."
The efforts of RBI Pittsburgh and RBI programs nationwide come at a time when the number of African-Americans in professional baseball is decidedly down. In the mid-'70s, when the likes of Willie Stargell and Dave Parker were synonymous with Pittsburgh baseball, 27 percent of MLB players were African-American. On opening day this season, that number was down to 8.5 percent, a figure even lower than the 17.5 percent of African-American players in MLB in 1959, the year in which every team had integrated.
Saunders said the current figure comes from a litany of factors that include expenses for equipment, a lack of coaches in low-income areas and the difficulty of organizing pick-up games, all things that drive many talented young athletes to other sports. Subsequently, due to the low number of African-Americans in the major leagues, there are fewer players for young African-Americans to look up to and emulate.
However, at least in Pittsburgh, that trend seems to be changing course.
Though the team has stumbled recently, the Pirates have shown signs of progress and found a new face of the franchise in Andrew McCutchen who -- following a long line of former Pirates superstars such as Stargell, Parker and Barry Bonds -- is African-American. In addition to McCutchen, the Pirates have three other African-American players on their current roster -- Derrek Lee, Xavier Paul and James McDonald, the latter of whom participated in the RBI program while growing up in Long Beach, Calif.
McDonald has worked with Saunders and RBI Pittsburgh by doing clinics with young players, something that McDonald believes can only help the program.
"There's not that many African-Americans in the game, so African-American kids don't have anybody to look up to or see anybody," McDonald said. "I feel like any chance I have to give back or show them support, I go and do it. I feel like the more they see and the more they're around the game, the more you'll start to see the numbers go up."
Through the work of Saunders and many others, RBI Pittsburgh has made great strides since it began in 1994. When Saunders took over 11 years ago, just 150 kids were in the program. Today, RBI Pittsburgh includes more than 1,000 area youth in 12 communities with the number of participants growing every year, partially due to Saunders' focus on starting children at a younger age in feeder leagues, as opposed to the 13-18 age range that RBI addresses nationally.
An indicator of how far the program has advanced is the Pirates Community Baseball Center at the Shadyside Boys & Girls Club. RBI Pittsburgh, with support from various charities, filled in what was formerly a dilapidated pool and put turf over it. Now, four years later, it is a full-scale batting cage used by roughly 5,000 children a year looking to hone their skills and enthusiasm for the game.
RBI Pittsburgh teams have excelled on the field as well, having had teams compete in seven Pittsburgh City Parks League championship games. Furthermore, a group of 12 girls from an RBI Pittsburgh softball team participated in the Junior RBI Classic in Phoenix while that city was playing host to the MLB All-Star Game.
But perhaps most of all, RBI Pittsburgh looks to leave an impression on the daily lives of its participants. Saunders has his coaches always ask players about their grades, sometimes even asking for report cards, and the program also focuses on using baseball as a character-building tool.
While Young and his work with RBI initially looked to increase the number of African-American players in baseball, it has become a way to change and impact the lives children of all ages and races away from the baseball field, and that work continues today in Pittsburgh.
"We have a saying when we're playing baseball -- one pitch at a time, that's how we're going to play the game," Saunders said. "We're going to work with the kids, and we're going to every day reinforce positive values. We're going to talk about character. We're going to talk about work ethic. We're going to talk about socialization skills and talk about these kids getting jobs. That's all very important in what we're doing."
First Published August 15, 2011 12:00 am