Why wait until October for the World Series?
The World Series will come a little early this year, at least for the 300-plus baseball and softball players participating in this year's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) World Series.
The players, ranging in age from 13 to 18, come from all over the United States, and will descend upon Minnesota and Target Field beginning Tuesday, when Commissioner Bud Selig will give the opening address.
Selig is coming to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the RBI World Series. He'll bring an entourage of Baseball Hall of Famers -- Rod Carew, Paul Molitor and Bert Blyleven -- with him.
David James, the director of RBI, described the program as being "geared toward encouraging more baseball and softball participation in underserved communities for at-risk kids, underserved kids."
According to James, 2012 marks the 23rd year of the RBI program, which was founded in Los Angeles by former Tigers player and MLB scout John Young. In the early 1990s, Young observed that inner-city African-American kids weren't playing as much baseball as they used to, and decided to do something about it. That something turned out to be the RBI program, which has seen over one million participants and 180 Major League Baseball draftees.
RBI alumni currently in the big leagues include CC Sabathia, Carl Crawford, Coco Crisp, Yovani Gallardo, Justin Upton and James Loney.
"We have nearly 300 local RBI leagues this year. This year, we will serve over 200,000 kids ages 5 to 18," James said. "During the year, we are in constant communication with our local RBI programs across the country, helping them raise the profile of their program, garner the necessary resources in order to operate, making sure that our programs aren't just tournament-focused, but that it's a comprehensive program that not only deals with what these young men and young women do on the field, but what they do off the field, making sure that academic performance is a priority."
This year, eight RBI baseball teams and four softball teams were sent to the All-Star Game in Kansas City for the RBI Classic.
"The kids get to play a tournament amongst themselves, but they also get to participate in all of the All-Star activities," James said.
Also new to the 2012 RBI World Series will be some notable alumni that have gone on to succeed off the diamond.
"The reality is that well over 95 percent of the kids that play on our baseball side are not going to make it to the Major Leagues, so we wanted to make an effort to identify some people that have been successful in life and have become 'major league' citizens," James said.
Those citizens include Sam Kass, a 1998 RBI World Series champion who now works as the assistant chef and senior advisor for Healthy Food Initiatives in the White House. Also attending are Dee Jackson, a sports director and radio personality in Montgomery, Ala., and Dominique Accetturo, a 1999 RBI World Series champion who went on to play softball at the University of Alabama.
The 2012 RBI World Series will feature separate baseball and softball divisions, with the boys' junior (ages 13-15) and senior (ages 16-18) divisions kicking off on August 2, and the championships being played at Target Field on August 5. The girls' tournament begins August 7, and their championship game will be played at the University of Minnesota's Jane Sage Cowles Stadium on August 12.
James said the RBI World Series has grown exponentially since its inception in 1992, with multiple big league teams volunteering to play host.
"Typically, every two to three years we rotate [locales]," James remarked. "Previous to Target Field, we were down in Jupiter, Fla., at the [Roger Dean Stadium] Spring Training complex for the Marlins and the Cardinals. This is the second year in Minnesota, and we are currently working with some other Major League clubs about who will be the host for 2013 and 2014."
There is never a dull moment for James, as he said "[they're] pretty busy 365 days a year.
"There are times during the year -- like right now -- when there's a whole lot to do in a very short time, and it can seem a little overwhelming and a little bit frustrating," James admitted. "But I feel fortunate that, multiple times over an eight-week period in the summer, I get to go out and watch ballgames and talk to parents and to supporters and, most importantly, kids.
"And I get to see the impact of the RBI Program, playing the game of baseball and softball. In a lot of cases, allowing the kids to travel to different cities, to places that they've never been before, to meet kids from other cities and other parts of the world. And I feel very lucky and honored to have the responsibility of being able to make that happen."
Indeed, planning such an endeavor is a huge undertaking for James. But it all pays off in the long run.
"I think the most important thing for people to know about RBI is its ability to change lives. It's not just about baseball or softball. It's more about opportunities and providing kids with new experiences."
Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11.