PHILADELPHIA -- As Ramon Reyes soft-tossed baseballs to participants in MLB's inaugural Play Ball Weekend on Saturday afternoon, he couldn't help but reflect on what the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program had done for him.
If a 13-year-old Reyes, fresh off a move to Philadelphia, were told in 14 years he'd be making a comfortable living as a realtor in suburban Pennsylvania, it would have been difficult for him to imagine.
But at 16, everything changed.
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After growing up in the south Bronx projects, where "welfare was the norm ... drug dealers were the role models," as he described it, Reyes and his family moved to the City of Brotherly Love. Three years later, he met Jon Joaquin and joined the Philadelphia chapter of the RBI program.
Joaquin, for the past 16 years, has headed the Phillies' youth baseball development department. His realm of responsibilities include the RBI program, Play Ball Weekend and other outreach initiatives to help grow interest in the sport among local youth.
"It's all about opportunity, and I always preach that," Joaquin said. "If I can provide these kids with an opportunity -- on the field or off the field -- those are things I think it's all about."
Reyes' friends coaxed him into trying out for the RBI travel team in 2005. Already being a talented catcher, Reyes made the Triple-A squad and got to travel the country. With the RBI program, Reyes took trips to New York, New Jersey, Florida, California and more.
Hopping on an airplane to go play baseball sounds like a good gig for any 16-year-old. But it was particularly impactful on Reyes. Growing up in the projects, he said, he didn't know anything but rich and poor.
"I didn't know anything about a medium income, a middle class family," Reyes said. "It helped me see there's a better world out there."
It also created lifelong bonds between Reyes and his teammates, coaches and mentors in the program. He was on the 2007 Philadelphia RBI team that beat the reigning champion Los Angeles squad to win the RBI World Series (becoming the first cold-weather team to do so).
The players from that title-winning team had a five-year reunion in 2012 -- not unlike a high school or college graduating class would. They shared stories and reminisced while reliving joyous times.
More recently, though, the team gathered again on a far more somber occasion. One member of the 2007 team was Oakland A's pitching prospect Sean Murphy, who died unexpectedly last month. They were able to celebrate his life, rather than wallow, thanks to the memories they shared.
"A Philly guy straight in, straight out," Reyes said. "A bunch of us went to the funeral and met up again. Of course we're all down. But when we see each other, it was like happy moments."
Joaquin stayed in contact, too, like he does with many former RBI participants. Reyes was a freshman in college when he won the RBI title. Joaquin has watched him go from 16 years old to college graduate and now to a mature adult who wants to give back to the community that gave him so much.
"It's like a big brother type thing," Joaquin said. "He's really grown up to be a great man."
So when Joaquin reached out about helping out on Saturday, "that's the first thing I did, like 'Oh man, I'm in,'" Reyes said.
He largely credits RBI for the man he's become. His dedication to the program as a teenager helped build a work ethic and taught him how to stay organized. Mostly, though, it opened window to a new world for him.
So when Reyes took the field on Saturday, he did so with plenty of motivation. The 27-year-old realtor hustled onto the field with the kids he was coaching. He gave hands-on hitting tips and one-on-one time for every kid on the field. Hopefully, he said, he can give them just one tidbit of information. "Then I've made a difference."
After all, Joaquin said, "You never know when the Ramon Reyes is going to be coming through our system and referencing RBI as an outlet for them."