Major League Baseball’s history prior to integration is skewed, deserving of an asterisk as much as the Steroid and Deadball eras. Some of the greatest ballplayers who ever lived either never reached the majors (Negro League star catcher Josh Gibson), or arrived well into the twilight of their career (pitcher Satchel Paige, who debuted at age 41).
Fans didn’t know what they were missing before Jackie Robinson broke the color line. He was followed by a bevy of stars who flourished as African-Americans comprised nearly 19 percent of major leaguers by the early 1980s.
Six decades after Robinson made history, the number of black players has fallen to 8 percent, as the best athletes flock to football and basketball. Unlike in 1957, everyone is fully aware that baseball is missing out. No longer barred from entry, African-Americans are choosing not to play, another regrettable situation.
But thanks to efforts by MLB, some youths in the District have the opportunity to fall in love with the game. Few if any will advance to the major leagues, but that’s beside the point. Some might play in the minors; some might play in college; and some might become lifelong fans, passing their affection to their children and grandchildren.
MLB and the D.C. Grays have partnered to bring Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities to Washington. And that’s a great development for children and baseball fans in the city.
Entering its 27th year, RBI is an MLB program that operates in more than 200 cities worldwide and annually provides more than 260,000 boys and girls the chance to play baseball and softball. The D.C. Grays are a member of the Cal Ripken collegiate baseball league, with a mission to help college players and inner-city youth.
The Grays will operate seven RBI teams this season, five for baseball and two for softball. There will be no cost to children or their families.
“When D.C. Grays Baseball was founded in 2012, our goal was to make the great game of baseball available and accessible to every kid in our community, regardless of ability to play,” Grays president and founder Michael Barbera said in a statement Thursday when the partnership was announced.
“Now that we have revitalized the RBI program for D.C. and are helping the ballplayers at John Phillip Sousa Middle School,” Barbera said, “we are fulfilling our mission to be ‘ambassadors for baseball’ in Washington, D.C.”
The Grays are donating baseball equipment and apparel to Sousa, which is located across the street from the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy. Between RBI, the academy, the Grays – and the first-place Nats – African-American youth in D.C. have as much exposure to baseball as anywhere in the country.
Again, the goal isn’t necessarily to produce the next Lorenzo Cain or Andrew McCutchen, two of the game’s biggest stars. Like other sports, baseball is also a positive outlet for energy and a tool to develop character. The Nats’ youth academy – located across the street from Sousa Middle in a neighborhood where 40 percent of children live below the poverty line – is a prime example. About 145 children attend the program where they learn more than hitting, fielding and pitching.
“If they turn out to be great athletes and become baseball players and play in high school and so on, that’s great,” Bryant Curry, academy’s head of family and community engagement, told ThinkProgress. “But our main focus is to teach teamwork, have them running around and doing something positive. At our core, we’re an academic program – we just use baseball as a hook to keep kids here.”
RBI features several educational and life skills components, including courses that cover drugs, alcohol, tobacco, PEDs and premature sexual activity. But the program is open about its desire to develop new fans and talented players as well as good citizens. Among RBI’s stated objectives are “increase participation and interest in baseball and softball” and “increase number of talented athletes prepared to play in college and minor leagues.”
RBI alumni include Manny Machado, CC Sabathia, Carl Crawford, Jimmy Rollins and the Upton brothers (B.J. and Justin). As for the future, there are faint, encouraging signs overall: According to USA Today, 17 African-American players were selected the first day of the draft last summer, including the highest percentage of first-round picks since 1992. Eight of the top 50 projected picks in the 2016 are black.
Some observers don’t see the big picture and wonder “what’s the big deal?” Let former MLB player and manager Jerry Manuel explain: “If you eliminate a culture from the game that has given you Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, Hank Aaron … then you know that the level of play is not where it should be,” Manuel told the Sacramento News & Review.
It would be cool if a youngster from Washington goes through the new RBI program and/or the Nats Youth Academy and/or the D.C. Grays and one day reaches the majors, perhaps even with a curly W on his cap.
But even if he tops out before reaching “The Show,” he’ll be better off after the experience.
And the same goes for baseball.