If you lived in North Miami in the 1990s, you might have had to watch out for flying baseballs in your yard.You see, the houses were pretty close together, and when Manny Lora and the neighborhood kids would play catch, they'd stand in their own backyards and throw across other
If you lived in North Miami in the 1990s, you might have had to watch out for flying baseballs in your yard.
You see, the houses were pretty close together, and when Manny Lora and the neighborhood kids would play catch, they'd stand in their own backyards and throw across other people's property to each other. After school, they'd run out onto the asphalt barefooted and throw everything they could get their hands on -- baseballs, pebbles, Gatorade tops.
Lora always had an undeniable passion for baseball, passed on to him by his Dominican father and cultivated in those backyards of North Miami. He was also blessed with a live arm and the willingness to work hard to join the droves of baseball talent coming out of the Sunshine State. But his family couldn't spend the $1,500 or $2,000 to get him on a travel team -- a conduit to the best coaching and exposure possible to develop as a young, budding talent.
Lora got that chance through Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program. He took that chance and he never let it go, propelling himself through a four-year collegiate pitching career and all the way to where he is now -- at 27, the newly-minted head coach at his alma mater, Alabama A&M University, one of the youngest head coaches in Division I baseball.
"I still talk to those guys on the RBI team, the coaches still reach out to me, we stay in contact, we stay in communication, constantly being mentored by some of the coaches from that RBI team," Lora said. "It's very impactful when you have such a strong, supportive group from something that happened nine, 10 years ago."
Growing up, Lora was always a Marlins fan -- how could he not be? From the 1997 and 2003 World Series championships to the players he grew up watching -- Jeff Conine, Luis Castillo and, later, Jose Cabrera -- there was a lot to cultivate a kid's love for baseball in South Florida back then.
"I can still remember myself wearing the teal pinstripes, a little outfit, and swinging a bat," Lora said. "Ever since I was 4, I've loved the sport."
Lora eventually turned that love for baseball into a solid career at Hialeah-Miami Lakes High School, but during the summers -- when most kids hoping to play baseball at the next level would spend thousands to play on travel teams and at showcase tournaments -- he'd be helping out his dad, a former baseball player in the Dominican Republic, at work in tile installation.
"Usually, most of the tiles come in boxes, sets of five or six, and they're usually 60-70 pounds, so I would use that as a strength-and-conditioning-type thing," Lora said. "Try to unload as many boxes as possible. Most mortar mix or cement bags are 50 to 100 pounds."
But after Lora's sophomore year of high school, one of his friends on the team, Mike Ramos, invited him over to play for the local RBI team, sponsored by the Marlins.
Every summer, the Marlins provide equipment, uniforms and umpires to more than 500 children to promote interest in baseball, academic achievement and social responsibility in underserved areas of South Florida, and they organize a competitive summer league. Every year, an RBI All-Star team is selected to compete at regional, national and international tournaments.
Most importantly for Lora and his family, it was free of charge. But even then, he didn't approach it without some hesitation.
"At first, you usually tend to hear that it's not a very strong league, there's not a lot of players," Lora said.
And, well, he was surprised to see for himself the quality of players that turned out.
"So when we got together, with all the guys you always heard of or read about in the newspaper -- Miami-Dade articles, players of the week -- you finally start to see them and hang out with them, really get to work," he said. "I was on a team with All-State pitchers. I was on a team with guys that went to the state championship game. I was on teams with guys that went to really, really good high schools."
Even though he didn't have the money for travel ball, Lora immediately saw his level of competition take a steep hike, and thanks to his organized and passionate volunteer coaches -- Mario Rodriguez and Tino Burgos -- he was really pushed as a player for the first time in his young baseball career.
For example, his team would start every practice with a three-mile run (remember, this is summertime in Miami) before any batting practice, conditioning or defensive work. And it wasn't just the baseball experience that changed him -- his coaches were true to the mission of the program of instilling not only baseball, but life values, in its players.
"The coaches -- they made us humble," Lora said. "They made us humble and they made us appreciate the things that we have, and really started to emphasize working hard and putting the work in on a daily basis."
Lora remembers, in particular, "Coach Mario" having a huge impact on his mindset that stuck with him through his playing career -- and even now, as a coach.
In a bracket game against the Phillies' RBI team, Lora entered to close out the contest, but a few errors were committed behind him, and the fiery, emotional Lora lost his control on the mound. The Miami RBI team lost in comeback fashion.
Sitting on the bench, Lora chewed a hole through his jersey in frustration. Rodriguez walked over to console the young Lora and talk to him about dealing with adversity -- all the while, tears streaming down Lora's face.
"That's one of the big, big impacts in my life," Lora said. "You don't really start to notice those until you're done with baseball and start to think back about the people that were really there for you, that coached you, that really gave you these lessons."
RBI really opened the door for Lora's exposure and opportunities to flourish. He was named to the RBI All-Star team in his first year, in 2007, and the talented Miami RBI team bested an RBI team from Tampa to win the Southeast Region and advanced to play the Los Angeles team in Compton, Calif., giving Lora the chance to visit California for the first time.
And because of the exposure and the connections he gained, Lora was invited to play for the Florida Bombers, a well-known travel team. That opened the door for even more exposure, which, of course, led to Division I offers and his eventual career as a reliever, assistant coach and, now, head coach at Alabama A&M, where he had three teammates who played in RBI.
Looking back at his own journey through RBI, Lora is acutely aware that the program has the talent and the coaching to be a formative part of the baseball lives of others as well. But he worries that the perception of the league, of it being a step below travel ball in terms of talent or exposure -- remember, he thought that before he started -- needs to change among not just youth around the nation, but also among coaches everywhere.
"We need to change the way it's viewed, its perspective," Lora said. "It's not just a league that's free for everyone to play in. It's a very competitive league. And I think the more that college coaches start to get involved with the RBI league and recruit more from those leagues, of course you'll start to get a lot more commitments from the RBI. That'll definitely make the RBI stacked.
"If you're talking to a kid that can't pay $2,000 to play three months, in RBI, he'll still get that type of exposure."
Lora is brimming with ideas as to how to change that perception. He hopes that there are more tournaments with college coaches more actively involved. He wonders whether more of the games can be televised in some way. But he also believes that on its current trajectory, the talent in the program will eventually speak for itself, too.
"Just as an example, the Atlanta RBI team, they're stacked," Lora said. "They have eight or nine college recruits on that team, guys that are very, very good. And I do believe that there are other teams like that as well. It's just going to take a little bit of time to make, because right now, everything in the summertime or the fall, everything is about travel ball."
For his part, even as he makes the hectic transition to the helm of a Division I collegiate baseball program, Lora is actively effecting the change that he seeks in the perception of RBI. He's remained in contact with his old coaches -- Rodriguez is the head coach at nearby Miramar High School -- to stay present in Miami RBI in a mentorship capacity.
Lora has also started investing his time to actively research and recruit Miami-area youth to the program, because, as he says, "If I can come out of the RBI program, you don't know what other guys can."
"You get to see guys that are hungry, that want that opportunity and they're getting good mentorship, good coaching."
That kid who grew up playing Dominican stickball with an old broomstick and a bottlecap on the streets of North Miami? He still harbors that ambition of making it to the big leagues one day, like all kids do. But Lora knows his playing days are over. He's had a Tommy John surgery and a few shoulder surgeries, and he knows that his once-live arm doesn't have what it takes anymore.
Instead, as a coach and a mentor, not just to the students Lora will enrich in his new capacity at Alabama A&M, but also to the next generation of kids he hopes to find throwing around over their neighbors' backyards in South Florida, it's simple for him: He just wants to make an impact -- in baseball, in academics, in life -- like the RBI program and its coaches did for him not too many years ago.
"The chance to be impactful to guys, that's my ultimate goal," Lora said. "I love to take care of my guys, give them everything that they want, things that I know that I didn't know when I was playing.
"They're young men that are constantly trying to figure themselves out as well, trying to figure out what they're going to do with the rest of their lives. Any little thing that I can do to be impactful to a kid is something that really ignites me."
Khari Caver, one of Lora's incoming freshmen, is one of those kids. Caver came through the RBI program, too, and he was on a loaded Atlanta team that played in the 2018 RBI World Series in Minneapolis a few weeks ago.
But Caver wasn't there. Lora explains fondly that Caver wanted to be at his first day of orientation at Alabama A&M instead.
Visit this link to learn more about the RBI program and to donate.
Do-Hyoung Park is a reporter for MLB.com based in the Bay Area. Follow him on Twitter at @dohyoungpark.