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SF RBI helps children read between the lines

Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program uses sport to encourage literacy

SAN FRANCISCO -- A youngster attending the San Francisco RBI program's "Legends For Youth" clinic Saturday was slow to return a fielder's glove he borrowed from a volunteer. No big deal.

But Jim Messemer, founder and director of San Francisco RBI, seized on this incident as a prototypical "teachable moment" for the 100 or so middle-school students attending the event at Benedetti Diamond on the University of San Francisco baseball field.

"You have to be responsible to be functional in society," Messemer told the youngsters gathered in the bleachers after the clinic.

Imparting such lessons is largely what San Francisco RBI is about. When fans aware of the program hear anything about Major League Baseball's RBI initiative, they often consider the acronym (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) and assume that popularizing the sport and developing talented players are among the organization's biggest goals.

However, developing skilled people is what most concerns San Francisco RBI. Within this organization, the acronym takes on a fresh meaning: reach, believe, inspire. Messemer, his full-time staff of three and numerous volunteers strive to help underserved youths learn to read at or above their grade level through year-round literacy tutoring.

"San Francisco RBI seeks to achieve this goal by mobilizing networks of influence and building civic capacity, enabling a design process that elevates and reinvents literacy learning," the non-profit's mission statement concludes.

Nancy Lee, San Francisco RBI's director of literacy, explained how San Francisco RBI used baseball as a vehicle to drive students toward higher reading levels.

"Not only is it teaching them how to play, but it's also teaching them about teamwork, discipline, perseverance -- that you don't give up, that it takes a lot of hard work and discipline to become really good at baseball or softball," Lee said. "That translates back into the classroom. When reading gets tough, there are many different skills that you need to master to get to the next level. But you don't give up. You don't complain. We just try again."

In essence, San Francisco RBI strives to create what Messemer called a library without walls. The group visited this enviable place, AT&T Park, on Sept. 6, when 200 children and chaperones watched the Giants host the D-backs on behalf of the Commissioner's Community Initiative. In the middle of a pregame clinic at Little Giants Park adjacent to the big ballpark, Giants right-hander Matt Cain arrived to share his educational background with a rapt audience.

Various community leaders, including former San Francisco mayor and current California Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom, have thrown their support behind San Francisco RBI.

To further San Francisco RBI's cause, the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association enlisted a sizable contingent of ex-big leaguers to supervise drills at Saturday's clinic. Former Giants Ed Bressoud, Mike Felder, Fred Breining, Pat Gomez, Jalal Leach and Rich Robertson joined the contingent. Also on hand were Dwain Anderson, Warren Brusstar, Jim Campbell, Ernie Fazio, Tim Fortugno, Joe Kmak, Bill Koski, Leron Lee and Larry Murray.

Leach, who runs a Sacramento-based youth baseball program that provides mentoring as well as instruction, felt compelled to donate his time.

"Any chance I get to work with kids, to keep the game going and teach the kids a sense of pride, I'm all in," said Leach, a former outfielder who played professionally for 15 seasons.

Felder, a Giants outfielder from 1991-92, said programs such as San Francisco RBI were a necessity.

"The rules have changed," he said, citing grade-point average minimums for athletic participation. "To be able to read, write, know your math -- they all go hand in hand now," he added. "Back in our time, the '60s and early '70s, a kid could get almost straight-Fs, but as long as he's at school each day, he's eligible to play."

Robertson, who spent part of six seasons (1966-71) pitching for San Francisco, addressed the effect of Saturday's clinic and similar events on kids.

"You can't do much in a few minutes," Robertson said, referring to the youths' shuttling from drill to drill. "But they're in an environment they probably would never be exposed to, with a bunch of guys they're going to forget. But they'll remember the moment. You get a little conversation going, and you see a sparkle in their eye."

Keeping that sparkle lit is San Francisco RBI's objective. The organization works with students at Dr. William L. Cobb Elementary School and middle schoolers at KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) Bay Area Academy by providing literacy tutoring three days per week. RBI's representatives and volunteers work with each teacher to determine each child's learning needs.

"It's a very collaborative process," Lee said.

After classes, boys and girls head for the field to practice baseball and softball, respectively. Middle schoolers play a 10-game league schedule in the spring. Additionally, ballplayers from the University of San Francisco provide instruction on Fridays as long as their schedule allows.

"You look at the opportunity to give back to kids," USF baseball head coach Nino Giarratano said. "It's so nice to walk down the steps here and see these kids smiling and having fun."

Chris Haft is a reporter for

San Francisco Giants