Youth is served at Game 4 of Fall Classic
MLB promotes community initiatives such as RBI program
PHILADELPHIA -- Damitryus Allen is 10 -- going on 11 -- and he has this new thing for baseball.
"It's fun. I like throwing," he said, wondering what it might be like to be a pitcher someday, like one of those grownups on the Phillies playing just down the street and on his TV.
"Right now, I'm just trying to get him out" of the house, said his mother Connie. "And I think it's good to show him and other kids that there are other sports out here besides the usual, football and basketball. But as a mom, really it got me to get him out today. That was a plus."
If you are among the countless caretakers who want baseball to be the national pastime forever, then you are rooting for Damitryus Allen. He matters a lot, and maybe as much as Derek Jeter and Jimmy Rollins right now during the World Series being played at Citizens Bank Park.
The future of Major League Baseball has a lot to do with making baseball accessible, fun and important to inner-city kids. MLB took the unprecedented step of weaving a community-initiative theme into each of the first four games of this 105th Fall Classic between the Phillies and Yankees, and the Game 4 theme is youth. MLB and the Phillies conducted a "Wanna Play?" clinic Sunday morning for local kids like Allen from MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) presented by KPMG program and Boys & Girls Clubs of America -- turning the Southeast Youth Athletic Association Field complex at Seventh and Bigler streets into something of a dream world with a makeshift Lil' Sluggers Field that featured giant World Series logos, ceremonial bunting and the new "Wanna Play?" logos everywhere.
Game 1 was Welcome Back Veterans. Game 2 focused on Volunteerism and Community Service, as Derek Jeter won the Roberto Clemente Award presented by Chevy. Game 3 was Stand Up To Cancer, with everyone still talking about that historic live crowd event in the second inning Saturday night to make a "Standing Up To Cancer: Priceless" ad spot in conjunction with MasterCard Worldwide.
Hall of Famer and ESPN broadcaster Joe Morgan was among the instructors at the "Wanna Play?" clinic, along with MLB Network analyst Harold Reynolds and former Phillies Tony Taylor, Gary Matthews Sr. and Ricky Jordan. Volunteers included members of the Phillies Ballgirls and the Temple University baseball team. Morgan showed up wearing maybe the biggest smile you ever saw on his face as he saw a gathering of kids taking baseball instruction on a cloudy day. Morgan thought back to when he played wiffleball all the time as a boy.
"It's a big challenge because I think we lost almost a generation there, because we weren't doing things with young people," Morgan said. "They were going to other sports. Now I think we're trying to get them back into baseball. You have to love the game to be able to come out here and do these things with these kids. So they have to feel the love of the game first, and then if they're willing to practice and do all the things it takes to improve themselves."
Flash back quickly to the Civil Rights Game weekend last July in Cincinnati.
Lonnie Ali, accepting a prestigious Beacon Award on behalf of her husband, the great Muhammad Ali, told the crowd and MLB in particular:
"Muhammad made his living in the ring, but we have become very big baseball fans and family. We have a son who plays baseball. I can't tell you the importance of this game in the neighborhoods and communities of America today. I know Hank [Aaron] was saying something yesterday about this, about recruiting our young children to play baseball. I think it's so important for Major League Baseball to step up to that plate and make sure these children in the community are given the opportunity to play this great sport.
"I know first-hand in Southwestern Michigan, where we live, the opportunity that baseball has provided. Not only for the game, but for society. But baseball is an expensive sport. It's not like basketball where you only need a hoop and ball. You need a bat, ball, many things, and it becomes a barrier to many of them, a hindrance to those who might become very good baseball players. I just want to leave you with that."
Her words were powerful, heeded by Commissioner Bud Selig and all those in attendance, as were the words by Aaron on a Civil Rights Game roundtable panel a day earlier: "Baseball needs to get out of the ditch and look at the big picture and see what can be done to help our kids, because something needs to be done."
It was being done Sunday, and it is being done with increasing frequency. It is done one reachout at a time, and wherever you are, there is work to do. With its RBI program, MLB has begun creating Youth Baseball Academies in inner-city areas, starting with one in the Compton section of Los Angeles, then in Houston and Miami, and next up here in Philly.
Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs, said this was the third "Wanna Play?" event for the new campaign this year, following the first one in downtown Cincinnati during Civil Rights Game weekend and then in Houston for the opening of the academy there.
"It's been fantastic," Brasuell said. "We are happy to dedicate this World Series to the community, because that's what baseball's all about. Giving back, giving to the community, and giving to kids."
The RBI program has grown to more than 200 cities, and it is giving those inner-city and underserved kids a chance to play.
"RBI has grown so much and taken off so well, people have seen the faces of RBI and those specials on ESPN," Brasuell said. "Those kids are usually a little bit better now. Many of the RBI kids have started getting drafted by Major League teams. So we want to start getting the kids younger. That's what 'Wanna Play?' is about, what Junior RBI is about, and like Mrs. Ali said, we've got to get kids younger.
"Junior RBI is going to do that. We had a great pilot at the All-Star Game with 16 teams this year, we're going to have a lot more teams in the Junior program, which is going to service 6- to 12-year-olds, so we're going to get those inner-city, underserved kids a lot earlier. It's taken off. We have requests from teams, cities, organizations who want to be in Junior RBI -- it's just magnficent. We look forward to a great 2010."
Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president for MLB, knows the challenge of reaching all youth, but said he can sense some positive movement already, including in the visibility of Major Leaguers who could be role models for inner-city and underserved youths. Last year, he said, was the first time in more than 20 years that African-American players on the field took a bounce up -- from 8.8 percent to 10.2 percent. Solomon added that "the participants in the World Series, all the playoff games, this year and last year, show a very big number of African-Americans back on the field playing again."
"We try to show how much fun you can have with a ball-and-stick sport," Solomon said. "When we were kids, we all had a glove and we all went outside and played catch. Or even in the driveway we would play a small version of the game of baseball. A lot of kids don't do that anymore, especially in urban America, because a lot of times the male member of the family, who would normally teach the sport, is no longer there. And that makes it difficult to pass down a sport, which is basically a generational sport.
"But when baseball, the clubs, our industry all get together and bring about events like this, you see these kids over here having a great time. They're screaming, they're hollering, and they're going to remember these things when they get a little older. Baseball may be a part of their future."
Jordan, who was a Phillies DH in the 1993 World Series against Toronto, was standing down at first base on the miniature field, as little boys and girls swung mightily at a wiffleball. The former players gave them (and their parents and coaches) tips. Matthews told them a guy named Mays once talked about the importance of balance in a batting stance, and Matthews was reminded that he probably should add "Willie" considering the ages. Taylor told them to keep their eyes locked onto the pitcher. All those little things. You never know how much sinks in, but there is only positive in trying. Each kid would take one swing and then run down to first, where Jordan would instant-assess what he had just seen.
"Some of them you look at, and you could tell a few maybe played baseball," Jordan said. "Some of them, they're out here just trying, and that takes a lot of courage to do that. Some of them don't have their hands together, they just don't know what they're doing. You can give two pitches to them, and then on the third pitch you can straighten them out and make 'em make contact. Just to see the smile on their face, and the thrill of hitting that ball, it's great."
Damitryus Allen was getting a thrill out of his day at the ballpark. He was learning about this thing called baseball, this sport so many people are talking about around the world because they have had it passed down and because they may have played it growing up. He was holding tight to the mitt on his left hand, like he did not want to put it down.
If you love baseball, you don't want him to.
Mark Newman is enterprise editor of MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.