02/25/08 10:00 AM ET
MLB's RBI program enters 20th year
Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities an unqualified success
By Ben Platt / MLB.com
As the RBI program -- now an integral part of Major League Baseball's community efforts, with hundreds of teams across the country -- enters its 20th season, Young knows that teamwork has been the key to its success from the very beginning.
"When you walk around with a concept, it's difficult," said Young, a former Major League player and scout, who noticed a massive decrease in African-American ballplayers coming out of Los Angeles, which had been a fertile development ground for ballplayers since the late 1950s. "But it was easy for me, because I had Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, [former Dodgers general manager] Fred Claire and [former Dodgers owner] Peter O'Malley behind [me], along with other players like Hubie Brooks and Tony Gwynn, who, as a group, recognized it was something that we needed to do, and supported it from the beginning. And when you have people like that behind you, other people listen."
Young came up with the RBI concept with other scouts, including Dale Sutherland, Damon Oppenheimer, Mike Sgobba, Steve Flores and Ron Vaughn. Their proposal was sent to former Major League GM Roland Hemond, who was working in the Commissioner's office.
Hemond, who has always had a reputation as a progressive nurturer of talent both on the field and in the front office, immediately took to the project and helped get the ball rolling.
"I thought John had a great idea," said Hemond. "He said he was going to have scouts in the Southern California area help him, and I told him that was well and good, but scouts have to go watch ballgames throughout the rest of the country, they have their jobs to do, and they can help you a little bit, but not to the extent to what you will need, so let me talk to Commissioner Peter Ueberroth about this.
"Peter was impressed that I was passionate about what a great idea John had and how such a program could grow, so he called [Los Angeles] mayor Tom Bradley, who he had worked so closely with putting on the  Olympics, and [he] got some seed money from Mayor Bradley as well as Major League Baseball.
"Major League Baseball continues to sponsor the program, and it has grown to such great proportions, with more than 200 cities taking part in the U.S. and other parts of the world."
Major Leaguers Strawberry and Davis, who had both grown up in Southern California, were the first stars to embrace the project, donating their time, along with money for bats, balls and uniforms for the kids to use.
Strawberry was happy to do whatever he could to help.
"We played baseball and Little League out here, and we played out in Compton and all the parks in the area," said Strawberry, who won World Series championships as a member of the Mets and Yankees, and played three seasons with his hometown Dodgers. "We just supported the RBI program for John and wanted to give back to the inner city for the kids, to give them an opportunity to understand that baseball is the greatest game in the world and they can have an opportunity to play it.
"It's great to see where they are today and what has been established. I'm just so happy for the program, because it gave opportunity to young people to have an outlet and to be able to conquer their goals."
"This was just a really good idea," said Brooks, another Southern California native, who immediately supported the program. "This was very positive, and believe me, this turned out much better than a lot of people thought it would. When something is born, you never know how far it's going to go. You have to hang on to your optimism and see the light at the end of the tunnel. We are now starting to see that light, and it's getting bigger and bigger and better and better all the time."
After 19 years of existence, the program has begun to bear some fruit in the Major Leagues. C.C. Sabathia, Coco Crisp, James Loney, Carl Crawford, and B.J. and Justin Upton are among the more than 40 current and former Major League and Minor League players who have taken part in the program, which has expanded over the years to not only include baseball but girls softball as well, with 16 RBI grads currently playing college softball.
"The [effect] this program has had in the community and to so many people, not only in this country but around the world, in Latin America, too, is remarkable," said former Dodgers and Yankees pitcher Al Downing, who has been a longtime supporter of RBI. "This program has really taken off on legs of its own, and it really was needed. They had the vision, and it's going full force now."
With 247 RBI programs worldwide, along with major sponsorship from such companies as KPMG, which recognize RBI's work not only on the diamond but in the classroom as well, with its numerous academic scholarships, Young is just happy that his original vision has stayed intact and grown the way it has.
"It seems like yesterday when we just started this," said Young. "So many partners have come onboard to make this thing happen -- not only in the Southern California area but worldwide -- and it was something that was a need, and it's so gratifying to me that this program has been adopted so well and is shared by so many people and supported by so many people."
Ben Platt is a national correspondent for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.