Jr. RBI Classic educational on and off the field
NEW YORK -- These kids are exhausted. The fifth annual Jr. RBI Classic rolled through the finish line on Monday, giving 12 youth baseball teams from around the country an unforgettable experience.
Eleven of the teams were members of the RBI program -- short for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- and the 12th was a special guest entrant invited from Newtown, Conn. The tourney was for children in the 11-12 age group, but RBI reaches more than 200,000 kids of all ages from around the country.
Friday's branch of the round-robin tournament was rained out, and the teams played one game Monday before canceling the second due to the extreme heat in New York. But in between their games, the kids took in a litany of events related to the All-Star Game at nearby Citi Field.
The tourney started off on Thursday with a pair of games and an instructional clinic administered by volunteers from the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. The teams each made a few trips to the ballpark, some going to see a Brooklyn Cyclones (the Mets' short-season Class A affiliate) game and others Sunday's All-Star FanFest at Citi Field.
The Jr. Classic ended with a ticket to Monday's Chevrolet Home Run Derby, and for Steve Carter, a former big leaguer and a coach for the Prince George's County (Md.) team, the trip was invaluable. Some of these kids had never been to a big league park before, but on this trip, they got a chance to see Sunday's All-Star Futures Game.
"The kids have had fun," Carter said. "They've played four good ballgames and they've got to know people they had never known before. They gave out gifts and trinkets that will be memorabilia. It's been a life-changing experience for these kids. They couldn't even sleep last night thinking that they might catch a home run ball at the Home Run Derby. And being on the field yesterday was awesome, even if it was a Minor League All-Star Game. Some of those players are going to be in the Major Leagues."
Carter, who played 14 games for the Pirates split between the 1989 and '90 seasons, said it was special for him to be able to coach his son, Josh, an outfielder for Prince George's County. Josh is one of a pair of twins, but his other brother didn't want to play for the team.
That left the father and one of his sons for a five-day bonding experience, leaving the suburbs of Washington, D.C., and touring the streets of Manhattan. Prince George's County just started its RBI program in 2012, and Carter said it's been great to watch the fruit begin to flower.
"We're growing baseball in Prince George's County," Carter said. "Three years ago, we had 46 teams, and now we have 110 teams playing baseball this year. It's been great to get them on the field and to partner with MLB, and David James and RBI have done a great job. The volunteers that they have thrown together this week have made it an experience worth going home and cheering about."
James, the director of the RBI program, said Thursday that he likes to get a diverse grouping of teams to each of the RBI tournaments. There were teams from as far away as Los Angeles, Houston and Denver at the Jr. Classic, but also teams from Harlem, Newark, N.J., and Hartford, Conn.
RBI, which is dedicated to providing baseball and academic opportunities to inner-city and economically disadvantaged children around the country, made sure that the Jr. Classic carried an educational component. The students stayed in dormitories at St. John's University and sampled the college life for a few days, but that's only when they weren't playing baseball or being tourists.
"It's been like the Major League Baseball schedule," said Blaise Brescia, coach of the RBI team from Hartford. "Once we wake up, we're moving, we're eating, we're on the bus and we're going to the field. I don't think the kids quite understand that right now, but as they get older, they'll understand the professionalism and the commitment it takes. It's been awesome, but fast-paced."
Brescia, whose team played at College Point in Queens on Monday, said that some of his players had never left Connecticut before this trip. The very idea of a journey to Manhattan was exotic for the kids, he said, and an eye-opening lesson in the world outside their hometown.
They took it all in together. Brescia said that his team spent virtually every minute together for five days, and he said that the RBI program has built on a sturdy foundation in Hartford.
"It's awesome," he said. "It backs up everything we were trying to do in our little area with much more support. Our families have just been incredibly supportive, and it's nice that the kids and the families get to have this experience. It paid off for all of our hard work, dedication and commitment."
Carter, 48, was born in Charlottesville, Va., and played at the University of Georgia before beginning his professional career. The former outfielder batted .291 in the Minor Leagues and used baseball to see the world, and he said it's touching to watch kids learning to trust their skills.
Now, in his second crack at the game, Carter can tell Josh and the rest of his teammates what he's learned from baseball and all the ways that it can change their futures for the better.
"It makes me tear up. For me, I was a person who didn't really like baseball and then baseball changed my life in a lot of ways," he said. "I played in Venezuela and learned to speak Spanish, and I ended up my career playing in Italy. I tell the kids that any chance they have to get on the diamond and play ball, it's an opportunity of a lifetime. And for me getting to the Majors, that was a dream come true. I didn't play long, but now it's time for me to give back from what I've gained over a lifetime to these kids."