NEW YORK -- Dellin Betances stood in front of 100 kids ranging in age from 5 to teenagers on Sunday. They were on the main field at Macombs Dam Park, near what used to be home plate at the old Yankee Stadium. Off to the left was the gleaming palace where the Yankees' 6-foot-8 rookie right-hander struck out the side two nights earlier against Boston.
He saw the bright look of amazement in their eyes, that innocent promise of future that too often is stolen away instead of nurtured. He saw himself as he looked into the audience. This was him as a boy growing up near here, the New York kid who wanted to be a Yankee like Derek Jeter and then made it, just in time to be Jeter's teammate.
"Thank you guys, it's a pleasure for me being here," Betances told the boys and girls. "I grew up in New York, and being drafted by the Yankees, and now to be here playing with the Yankees, is a dream come true. It's something to look forward to for you guys. I grew up just like you guys, playing in these parks out here. For me to be here and play with the New York Yankees and to wear the uniform, I'm proud and honored.
"Keep working hard. School was always important for me, and I'm just happy to be here to share my story with you guys. I came up just like you guys growing up. I played in all these parks, in the Bronx and Harlem, and I'm just honored to be here for Jackie Robinson Day."
This is why he was here for a 1 p.m. ET event, far before a night game against the rival Red Sox. As part of the league-wide commemoration of the annual Jackie Robinson Day on Tuesday, Major League Baseball held a baseball and softball clinic for New York-area youth who participate in MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program. Betances was joined by Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr.; former Major Leaguer Cliff Floyd; Jackie Robinson's daughter Sharon; MLB vice president of community affairs Tom Brasuell; RBI executive director David James; and MLB Network host Harold Reynolds.
Representatives from the New York City Parks Department and the Cal Ripken, Sr. Foundation also participated. Youths from local RBI programs rotated to various stations covering skills.
Betances, 26, was drafted in 2006 out of Grand Street Campus High in Brooklyn. You want someone who can reach inner-city kids with a message? Top this one. They nodded and applauded after he explained to them: "I went to elementary school at PS48 in Washington Heights, then I moved to the Lower East Side when I was 10 years old, and I played there and I played in Harlem. I went to high school in Brooklyn, so I'm familiar with the whole city."
As the clinic went on and Betances walked toward the new Yankee Stadium across the street, where he would get in some running and eat, he waxed nostalgic about how the game had been made available to him and the opportunity to connect.
"To come out here and speak to these kids, to kind of inspire them, it's an honor for me," he said. "Especially a day like today, the RBI program and Jackie Robinson -- if it wasn't for him, I wouldn't be here. He paved the way for us, and I feel like I'm just honored and thrilled to be here.
"My brother helped me with the game of baseball, he introduced me to it. It's just inspiring for me. I worked so hard to get to this point, and just sharing the message with these kids and inspiring them to know that hopefully one day that they can be here or thrive in other ways."
Betances not only made it to The Show, but he has also emerged as a bright hope for the Yankees. He was ranked among the club's top prospects as a starting pitcher but was converted to relief work last season in the Minors after control issues. He went 4-2 with a 1.35 ERA in 35 relief outings with Triple-A Scranton/Wilkes-Barre in 2013, and after five scoreless outings so far this season, he has an 0.69 WHIP.
"I'm just honored to be a part of the team, especially being Derek Jeter's last year," Betances said. "I grew up a fan, and now to play on the same team as him and wear the Yankee pinstripes, I'm just honored to be here, and I'm trying to help the team win as much as we can."
Thirteen African-American players were selected in the first round of the 2012 and '13 First-Year Player Drafts, and the selection of seven in 2012 was the most by total and percentage (7-of-31, 22.6 percent) since 1992. About 60 alumni of both the RBI program and MLB Urban Youth Academies have been drafted the past two years. MLB's On-Field Diversity Task Force recently announced preliminary initiatives to address the talent pipeline of diverse players, amid well-documented challenges to increase the percentage of African-Americans on Major League rosters.
"I honestly don't know why the percentage has gone down, because most of the African-American ballplayers, their talent is off the chart," Betances said. "A lot of those guys who do play in this game are great athletes, great players, some of the best players in this game. I don't know why the percentage has gone down, but I'm sure a lot of these kids will start picking back up, and later on I feel like they'll continue to love this game, and the percentage will grow as the years go by."
The RBI program is the MLB youth initiative designed to give young people from underserved communities the opportunity to play baseball and softball, encourage academic success and teach the value of teamwork and other important life lessons. More than 220,000 young people play in the RBI program in approximately 300 programs in more than 200 cities worldwide.
"The growth of the program over the last 25 years has been phenomenal, both through our jewel events, our clinics, and in local leagues that are now in around 200 cities throughout the world," Brasuell said. "The U.S., plus Panama, Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Curacao, you've got leagues growing by leaps and bounds, particularly in the Junior RBI group, the 5-to-12-year-olds, where we have just tremendous growth. It's great to see the program growing. There are kids playing all over the place. And to see kids out here who want to learn more and become better players, it's quite gratifying showing kind of the fruits of our efforts."
Betances said the smiles he saw as he spoke made it all worth showing up at the ballpark early.
"As long as I see these kids smile and put smiles on these kids' faces, it's an honor," he said. "I've worked hard to get to this point. I just feel like sharing the message with these kids and putting smiles on their faces. I'm real excited to be here."
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. Read and join other baseball fans on his MLB.com community blog.