Harlem RBI hosted its annual fundraising gala, Bids for Kids, on Monday and honored former Yankees closer Mariano Rivera and JPMorgan Chase & Co. vice chairman Jimmy Lee. Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, a Harlem RBI Board member since 2010, was also in attendance. Teixeira is currently spearheading his Dream Team 25 program, which is aiming its first expansion into the South Bronx.
Harlem RBI began in 1991, when a group of volunteers transformed an abandoned lot into two baseball diamonds for the youth of East Harlem. Since then, Harlem RBI has grown to serve more than 1,500 boys and girls, ages 5-22, with education, social services and baseball/softball programs. In 2008, the non-profit opened up the DREAM Charter school that hopes to create a rigorous academic foundation for its youth.
"The two things I'm passionate about are kids and education," said Teixeira before the gala. "I think every kid should have the opportunity to succeed in life, to get a good education, and Harlem RBI provides those opportunities."
Besides honoring Rivera and Lee, members of the Harlem RBI graduating class were also in attendance at Cipriani 42nd Street. Ninety-three percent of that class is on track to graduate high school, having received college acceptance letters.
"It's a microcosm of our community," Teixeira said. "There's a lot of communities that have been lifted up by programs like Harlem RBI. Our leadership has done an amazing job of fostering a great atmosphere for kids to thrive. A lot of kids are dropping out of school. Harlem RBI's kids are going to college, and that's what we're proud of, because we're giving kids that opportunity."
"The job that this organization has done with these kids in Harlem and in the Bronx, helping them not only play the game -- that's the dessert -- but the education, that's what it is," Rivera said. "I'm proud of the job they do."
The night catered to baseball lovers, offering silent and live auctions to more than 850 of Harlem RBI's most loyal supporters with various items of baseball memorabilia and chances to attend All-Star Game festivities in July.
At its roots, Harlem RBI has allowed Teixeira to give back in a hands-on way, teaching kids the game at which he has excelled throughout his career, and potentially helping them find a similar path through the often disadvantaged inner city.
"It's hard to predict how many guys are going to make the Major Leagues," said Teixeira. "But what I do love seeing is kids learning the game of baseball, enjoying the game of baseball in the inner city."
The remaining issue, and something Teixeira's hoping to build on for the future, is carving out space for the game to be played. In a city confined by two rivers and myriad office buildings, transforming empty lots and usable space into diamonds is still a chief concern, and one that, if corrected, can inspire kids to see baseball in a new and practical light.
"We need to build fields," said Teixeira. "We need to get kids signed up in programs, and I think kids will enjoy baseball more. Drive around Manhattan and see how many baseball fields there are. That's why Harlem RBI has been so successful -- we're one of the only youth baseball fields in Manhattan. There's just not a lot of them. Hopefully, we're on the right track."
Jake Kring-Schreifels is an associate reporter for MLB.com.