What’s more American than baseball? Everyone should have a chance to play the great American pasttime, which is the whole point of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a national program that for the past 18 years has been trying to bring back a passion for baseball and prepare kids for life. Its founder John Young, a former first-round draft pick of the Detroit Tigers, said the program strives "to give kids an opportunity to play baseball who couldn’t afford it."
One of RBI’s goals is to increase minority participation. Even though many kids living in suburban areas are playing as much baseball as ever, many inner-city kids—mostly blacks—aren’t as involved. Among Division 1 college teams, African-American students make up 50 percent of the basketball squads and 44 percent of the football rosters, but only 6 percent of the baseball teams, according to 2003-2004 NCAA data. This decline carries through to professional baseball players. In 1975 there were 175 African-American professional baseball players, but last season there were only 90.
Young people are being lured to faster sports like basketball and football, or passive activities like video games. Many kids see baseball as boring—little pockets of action, and then long stretches of time while the pitcher warms up, the batter takes practice swings, and the base coach gives the signs.
Once kids get involved with baseball, however, they realize how much it actually has to offer. One of the newest Dodgers, Kenny Lofton, said, "It’s something that kids love because it’s a team sport. You go out there and it’s a team sport and kids understand how important it is to do things as a team and not just as an individual."
The Dodgers’ new manager, Grady Little, said, "It gives them something to do and it’s fun. It beats the other options."
Part of baseball’s broad appeal is that everyone has an equal opportunity to be a star no matter how tall they are, or how much weight they can bench press. There have been more than 10,300 players who have been 6′ or shorter. (The shortest player in baseball was actually 3’7" and weighed 65 pounds. He was brought in for the 1951 St. Louis Browns, used a toy bat, and had the smallest strike zone in major league baseball.)
In addition to organized leagues and baseball instruction, RBI provides individual tutoring for school, helps to prepare students for the SAT and college, and teaches goal-setting and time management courses.
"It has helped me tremendously. Besides baseball-wise, meeting great people … it’s given me countless knowledge that I use in class every day," says Ronnie Lopez, a senior at Gardena High School who joined RBI in 2002, and was honored at the organization’s recent annual awards dinner.
"With the help of Mr. Young and my teammates I definitely see myself in the near future in softball," said Westchester High School sophomore Shenaaz Burrell, who also was honored at the dinner.
Fellow honoree Chachera Brantley, a senior at Crenshaw High, said, "It’s helped me on the field and off the field. Off the field they helped me with tutoring and things like that and educational stuff. It helped me on the field with lessons, hitting lessons and pitching lessons."
From RBI to the Major Leagues
One of the most successful players to go through the RBI program is Coco Crisp, one of the newest Boston Red Sox players, who has replaced Johnny Damon in center field. Crisp said, "[RBI] gave me an opportunity to play baseball when I didn’t have an opportunity coming up through high school. It kind of made me the player I am today."
Many current and former baseball stars attended the dinner to support RBI. Among those in the star-studded crowd was the mayor of Los Angeles, Antonio Villaraigosa, who said in a one-on-one interview, "I’m here tonight to support this very important organization, RBI, that is engaged in an effort to expose inner-city youth across the nation to major league baseball, and also helping young people with the character building that is so important to avoid drugs and gangs."
Current Dodgers pitcher and Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne also shared why he believed baseball is important for kids. "It gets you away from everyday life. It’s a good way to get the frustration out, get energy, get good exercise, just find a way to get through life in a positive way."
Former Dodgers third baseman Ron "The Penguin" Cey says, "It’s really an education outside of school. It teaches you a lot about life."
Others agree that baseball is a great sport because of the lessons it teaches you. Says former all-star pitcher Rich "Goose" Gossage, "I don’t think—I know—every lesson on a baseball field pertains to life itself. The discipline, the camaraderie, teamwork, just everything in life. The failures, the things you go through in everyday life, you find it exactly the way it is on a baseball field, and those things teach you and prepare you for life."
There are 40 L.A. area high schools involved with RBI. To find out more, visit www.rbilosangeles.com.