Professional baseball seems to be suffering a long, undignified death -- but there might be some consolation in one tiny gesture Major League Baseball is making to its youngest fans. The industry cosponsors a program called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, for which managers and coaches work with kids as volunteers, not as high-salaried chess pieces. Each MLB player is asked to pitch in $25. (I'm trying to be nice here, so I'll just ignore that the kids' jerseys cost $35 each.)
When the program started in 1992, it was poorly run. Fields were little more than patches of dirt, and teams wore T-shirts as uniforms. In 1998, the Boys and Girls Clubs took over the program nationally; that organization works with MLB to fund and operate RBI in cities around the country.
Despite some uninterested parents and the feeling among young black kids that baseball just ain't cool, RBI introduces a dying sport to about 800 inner-city kids enthralled by other activities. "We all know if they weren't playing baseball, they'd be doing something they shouldn't be doing," says Mike Aguirre, manager of the sixteen- and seventeen-year-old-division Athletics. "Once they get their minds in the game and start thinking about baseball, they'll come to practice instead of going someplace else."
Teams in the oldest age group play at historic Satchel Paige Stadium at 48th and Swope Parkway. Trevor Vance, the Royals groundskeeper who has a lot of experience getting grass to grow under the feet of ballplayers, has made a showplace out of the once-neglected field. Other fields are at 43rd and Cleveland and 69th and Indiana.
"People don't believe you can have a beautiful program like RBI in the city's inner core," says RBI Director Anthony Dixon. A few parents have balked at Dixon's strict rules: no do-rags, no droopy pants, no hip-hop blaring over boomboxes during games. "You won't see players wearing their hats backward or running around with their jerseys hanging out," Dixon says. "You have to be firm. We don't hope the kids appreciate RBI; we make them appreciate it. I take a lot of flak from some people, but every CEO is a butthole to somebody."
Bobby Carter, an architect by day, manages the Monarchs baseball team in RBI's eleven- to twelve-year-old division. During a game at Swope Park, he directs last-minute batting practice outside the dugout fence, dangling a rubber ball from a 10-foot-long flexible pole. Thwack!
"Keep your head down," Carter barks when a young batter flails at the ball as though it were a piñata. After a dozen swings, the youngster advances to the on-deck circle to await his turn at the plate. The next hitter grabs a bat, and the in-game instruction continues.
Carter never played baseball as a kid and admits to learning everything he knows about the game from books, the Internet and other coaches. But his teams are disciplined, organized and enthusiastic. Every kid hustles in and out of the dugout. The league's slogan adorns a proud parent's T-shirt: "It's more than baseball. It's life."
Maybe Carter could help Neifi Perez improve his anemic .241 on-base percentage and earn his $4.1 million salary.