CHICAGO -- Cubs third-base coach Gary Jones said it's easy for players and coaches to forget they are role models.For Jones there was no bigger reminder than the one he had during this past spring, when the Cubs hosted a junior all-star team from Chicago's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities
CHICAGO -- Cubs third-base coach Gary Jones said it's easy for players and coaches to forget they are role models.
For Jones there was no bigger reminder than the one he had during this past spring, when the Cubs hosted a junior all-star team from Chicago's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program at the club's Spring Training complex in Arizona.
Friday was Jackie Robinson Day across Major League Baseball, bringing to mind both the importance of role models and Major League Baseball's vital movement to boost engagement in inner cities.
"When you get with some kids who have probably never been outside the city of Chicago, get them out to Arizona, meet some guys, it's a big deal," Jones said. "[The message] was basically [to] let them know we're just like they are. We're human beings just like they are. Some of us were like they are at that age, maybe sometimes just getting by, both parents are working. It's just giving kids the explanation to push forward, and maybe they can be standing on this field one day. You never know."
While in Arizona, the RBI team played against a local squad, worked out with Cubs players and watched a Cactus League game. Players and coaches spoke with the juniors, and some even took home mitts or batting gloves from members of the Cubs.
"They'll never forget it," Jones said.
Jones hopes that more African-American kids will continue to take advantage of opportunities to get involved with the game and stay involved throughout high school.
Nine of last year's first-round picks in the MLB Draft were African-American, the most since 1992.
In addition, MLB has opened Urban Youth Academies in Compton, Calif.; Houston; New Orleans; Cincinnati; and Philadelphia as part of its efforts to make the game more accessible to both African-Americans and people of all races.
"All you can do is give kids an opportunity," Jones said. "It's basically up to the kids to take advantage of it. I think Major League Baseball is doing its part, and I'm sure it will continue doing its part. Maybe other cities will start getting these programs, and when the programs start flourishing, we'll start to see some difference."
In the meantime, Jones said it's important for such people as himself or outfielders Jason Heyward and Dexter Fowler to carry on Robinson's legacy and serve as ambassadors. Jones "tries not the cheat the game," because the opportunity to be involved wasn't always a guarantee.
"If not for Jackie Robinson, I don't know if I'd be here today," he said. "I like to think that if it hadn't been Jackie, it would have been someone else, but if it hadn't been for Jackie Robinson -- if it hadn't been for Branch Rickey giving him that opportunity -- we don't know what the game would be today."
Cody Stavenhagen is an associate reporter for MLB.com.