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Jackie's legacy lives on at RBI World Series

Robinson-inspired team competing this week in Minneapolis
Special to MLB.com

For Ron Hayward, it's all about the kids. That's why he wears No. 42 in tribute to a man he considers the ultimate role model. That's why Hayward coaches a team in Jersey City, N.J., named after Jackie Robinson in the MLB-sponsored Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities Program, a team he has led to this week's RBI World Series in Minneapolis.

Commitment to younger folks was why Hayward worked so hard at his own baseball dream years ago. It's also why he walked away from a pro contract when he had a chance.

For Ron Hayward, it's all about the kids. That's why he wears No. 42 in tribute to a man he considers the ultimate role model. That's why Hayward coaches a team in Jersey City, N.J., named after Jackie Robinson in the MLB-sponsored Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities Program, a team he has led to this week's RBI World Series in Minneapolis.

Commitment to younger folks was why Hayward worked so hard at his own baseball dream years ago. It's also why he walked away from a pro contract when he had a chance.

And it's why, on a recent Friday night in Springfield, Mass., Hayward was grinding away -- yet again -- for nine hours on the portable dialysis machine. It left his dark eyes red-rimmed and weary, but no less determined. Hayward had to be ready for the next day, had to be ready for his kids, including his own son, a promising player in his own right.

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Half a lifetime ago, Hayward was a prospect. "Born, raised and struggled" in Jersey City, Hayward flocked to the diamond. There was something about the game that took his measure. It was physical, mental and a sharpening stone.

And it was a refuge from a turbulent upbringing: chilling periods of homelessness, no father in sight, a mother losing her battle with drugs, a kid brother drawn to gangs. But out in center field or standing in the box, baseball became Hayward's world.

Though born a decade after Robinson died, the man who broke baseball's color line was Hayward's hero.

"I love the guy," he says even now.

To Hayward, No. 42 dangled the possibility of deliverance.

An all-state player at Marist High School in Bayonne, N.J., Hayward yearned to play pro ball. In 1999, he enrolled at Bishop Community College, a historically black school in Mobile, Ala., the boyhood home of Hank Aaron. The hardest part was leaving his teenage brother, Elliott, behind. It haunts him even now.

"I think that really left him lost," Hayward said. "I wish sometimes I had brought him with me."

After his first semester, Hayward feared that Elliott was "getting caught up with stuff," sensing the tough talk, scared eyes and streets closing in. 

"If I get drafted," Hayward asked his brother at the time, "can you walk away?"

"Of course," Elliott said.

They knew that being selected as an early Draft pick meant earning a significant signing bonus. Hayward plunged into college ball that spring and the scouts took notice. Then he went home to Jersey City, waiting for the first Tuesday in June.

Then Hayward waited, and waited some more. Pick after pick came and went. Finally the Reds called his number in the 30th round. Hayward knew it was too late. Too late to make the dream a reality. And too late, tragically, for his brother. Eighteen days after the Draft, Elliott was killed. The news broke Hayward. He felt he had failed Elliott.

"My whole life went crooked," Hayward said. "I was going crazy ... My wife [Marjorie] -- my girlfriend at the time -- kept telling me, 'Don't give up. Come on. Come on!'"

Thirty-two days later, Marjorie gave birth to a son. There was no question what to name him: Elliott Hayward.

Hayward moved back to New Jersey. Almost immediately, he lost his mother to a heart attack. Hayward transferred to William Paterson University, hitting over .400 as a senior, but pro ball was not in the cards. His goals were different now.

"I wanted to be a father and a coach," Hayward said.

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For 15 years, Hayward has poured himself into coaching in the inner city.

"I've connected to so many kids," Hayward said. "I built such a brothership. It's a big family."

Hayward took his alma mater, Marist, to its first state championship in 23 years. In 2015, he left for St. Anthony High School, working for legendary basketball coach Bob Hurley Sr. Before the school closed two years later, the baseball team won a division title, posting its first winning season since '87. A longtime summer coach, Hayward now directs First Move Baseball Club, an instructional facility with travel teams for kids in and around Jersey City.

Hayward believes part of professional baseball's struggles to find inner-city talent stem from prejudice.

"We play against teams that have maybe 10 commits, Division I," Hayward said. "My kids work hard and they don't get offers. People ignore us. I get aggravated thinking about it because these are great kids ... Is it because of their color? Is it because of where they're from?" 

Hayward is a big believer in RBI, whose programs in baseball and softball -- each with educational and life skills training -- now serve 175,000 kids in 200 cities. He has been a fixture coaching the senior (15-18) division in Jersey City, winning the RBI World Series in 2012 and '14. Each time, Hayward was congratulated in person by Sharon Robinson, an educational consultant for MLB and daughter of Jackie Robinson, who was particularly touched to honor an RBI team named after her father.

"It's wonderful," she said, her voice layered with emotion. "We're very proud."

For his part, Hayward was deeply moved.

"She treats me like a son," Hayward said.

This year's quest for a third national title has special significance for Hayward because his son, Elliott, is the starting center fielder for the Robinson team in the senior division. 

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Father and son helped the team to a district title and came to Massachusetts for the northeast regional championships at Springfield College. 

Unbeknownst to Hayward, No. 42 had some history here -- history that fit the coach's heart perfectly. In August 1962, 24 days after his Hall of Fame induction, Jackie Robinson was the keynote speaker at a dinner at Springfield College. Before the dinner, local photographer Spero Coulacos watched Robinson talk with Springfield president Glenn Olds. Coulacos noticed that every time Robinson said the word "kids," he lit up with luminous intensity. Coulacos waited for just the right moment to capture it. 

As Coulacos later wrote, "Suddenly, with deliberate emphasis, word at a time, he started to say, 'We have a moral duty to look out for our ... kids.'"

Right at the click, Coulacos knew he had struck gold. 

"I had it on film -- his life's struggle, his passion, his spirit, his soul," Coulacos said. 

The photo would one day hang at the Smithsonian Institution.

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The Jackie Robinson team arrived in Springfield for a banquet on July 19, then retreated to the hotel downtown. Hayward set up his portable dialysis machine and put in his usual nine-hour stint. His kidney disease, diagnosed years ago, has required daily dialysis since 2014. 
 
The next day, Jackie Robinson split a pair of games, beating Harlem, and losing, 12-2, to tournament favorite Paterson, N.J., the national runner-up in 2017. Jackie Robinson then rebounded to upset Paterson in extra innings to advance to this week's RBI World Series in Minneapolis.

In their first game there, Elliot led the way, going 3-for-4 with two RBIs in a 14-4 win against the Cleveland Baseball Federation. Elliott is set to graduate next spring from Old Bridge (N.J.) High School, and is popping up on the radars of scouts and college coaches. At the recent Northeast Sunshine Showcase organized by Perfect Game, Elliot ran the 60-yard dash in a speedy 6.65 seconds and was named to the showcase's top prospect list.

And this week in Minneapolis, the Hayward family baseball legacy is on full display.

Marty Dobrow is a contributor to MLB.com.