A Major League Baseball event in Allentown, Pa., began with a simple conversation and the hope of giving out 25 bat-and-ball sets to families in the area. It turned into something more.
Major League Baseball, in support of the Lehigh Valley Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, hosted a walkup MLB Play Ball event on May 29 in Allentown. It was part of a series with various groups and communities to provide families with bat-and-ball sets while also providing academic assistance and life lessons.
“For what we've done over the last few years since we started as RBI, it's made it affordable for our kids. A lot of the leagues, especially in the suburbs, kids are paying $200, $250 to play regularly,” said Rob Leskosky, the league director and coach for the Lehigh Valley RBI program.
Leskosky and the Ortiz Ark Foundation -- a family-run organization dedicated to providing services to underserved families in Allentown -- were able to turn the event into “a full-blown block party,” Leskosky said. Although some inclement weather slowed things down, the event was a success.
Leskosky, who is also the head baseball coach at William Allen High School and a math teacher in the Allentown school district, has a passion for this line of work. He began coaching at age 17 while working with a teammate. After a few sessions, the teammate was, in Leskosky’s words, “destroying the ball.”
Leskosky’s coach told him, “If you can teach him to hit, you can teach anybody.” That resulted in him coming back the next year for his first of 30 seasons as a baseball coach.
“Just whether it's being punctual, whether it's respecting your teammates, the other team, dealing with losses -- all that stuff that we talk about on a regular basis,” Leskosky said. “I'm teaching in the school district, so many of our kids aren't getting those things. To use baseball as the driving force to teach those, and then, hey, you know what, you love baseball, I love baseball, this is a great thing. To mix that in just makes it really fun to do.”
Along with the bat-and-ball sets, all registered participants at the Play Ball event received a complimentary 2021 MLB.TV subscription, access to virtual and in-person youth baseball and softball programming, discounts on MLB-licensed merchandise and equipment, and other complimentary amenities.
“Even more importantly, the foundation has the resources and reach within the community to not only help provide baseball activities, but to also help our children in many other ways away from the baseball field,” Leskosky said.
Thanks to the work of the Ortiz Ark Foundation, Leskosky and the RBI program were able to obtain hundreds of bat-and-ball sets and set out for future endeavors. Along with the RBI program, the foundation is looking to work with some of the younger tee ball-age groups and provide baseball and community activities.
“They really want to target those really inner-city kids who aren't coming out and playing baseball, who may not know what programs are out there,” Leskosky said. “They kind of want to start tee ball and then just continue to work that group up. So that's been the big partnership with our goal of what we're trying to do with the Ortiz Ark Foundation.”
The Lehigh Valley RBI program is seeking grant money to improve some of the withered baseball fields around the city and is hoping for assistance from the local parks and recreation department. It has renovated the field at William Allen High School. The next phase is to update fields around the Allentown area and to put them on par with the other sports fields and courts.
“We want to try to get at least two fields probably up to a little bit of a better standard," Leskosky said. “Kids get to go out on a beautiful turf football field. It's always green. They get to go out on the basketball court at the high school. It's always in perfect condition.
“You go around baseball fields in the city ... and you're like, ‘Oh, look at it, it's all weeds, or it's all puddled.’ It doesn't have to be Yankee Stadium, but if it's something that's literally turning our kids away, that we need to do something about it.”
Since it was founded in 1989, the RBI program has provided baseball and softball opportunities for children, giving them a chance to learn the game of baseball.