All walks of life come together for annual RBI program

ORLANDO, Fla. -- They came from all areas of the continental United States and beyond, bound by their passion and desire to grow baseball in urban communities. The RBI program -- short for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- kicked off its annual RBI Institute on Thursday, a three-day program that allows administrators from several different places to compare notes on their common experience.

Some groups came from the West Coast and others from the East, and there were even leagues represented from such faraway locales as Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. David James, senior director of the RBI program, held court over the Institute at the Hyatt Regency in the Orlando airport, and he said the leagues gain invaluable experience from convening with their peers.

"I always joke that they get tired of hearing me and our staff speak, but they should really capitalize on the opportunity to speak to the other league directors," said James. "I think that's one of the most important takeaways, to find out how other leagues are doing it, and I think they tend to find that a lot of their problems are similar. An issue that they haven't been able to solve in their respective community, someone else is dealing with the same issue. We've discovered that it's almost like a fellowship. It's neat to see the interaction with the league directors and how they relate to each other."

The RBI program was created in 1989 as a local initiative in Los Angeles, and it's grown to serve more than 200,000 young boys and girls each year. RBI is present in more than 200 cities around the country, and 19 of the 30 Major League clubs administer a league in their respective cities.

The Institute -- which used to be a semi-annual program but has recently grown to an every-year event -- is an opportunity for the league administrators of every market to convene and talk about programming and resources and to compare notes on what has worked and what hasn't.

Twenty-three of the 30 Major League clubs sent an emissary to the RBI Institute, and James wanted to give special notice to the Atlanta Braves, who hold their Spring Training camp at nearby Champion Stadium. Terry Pendleton, Atlanta's first-base coach, will be on hand to address the RBI delegates on Friday night, and James said he was thrilled by the diversity of the conference's attendees.

"We've been very humbled by the commitment of all these folks and their commitment to growing the program," he said. "There's multiple buckets of RBI leagues; we have club-run programs and we have some that are run under the umbrella of an existing organization like the Boys & Girls Club or a local Parks and Recreation Department. Then you have independent organizations, which are truly grassroots leagues that are run by people who have full-time jobs and take the time out of their busy lives to provide opportunities for kids to play. We're always appreciative of all the groups. And the work they've been doing and the growth we're experiencing is all due to the people at the local level."

Thursday was just a day for many of the attendees to settle in and meet each other, and Friday will have several programs arranged throughout the day on a wide number of topics. The morning session will feature presentations from Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs and educational programs, and Chris Marinak, the league's senior vice president of economics and strategy.

Billy Bean, MLB's ambassador for inclusion, will also speak to the RBI administrators about the importance of making a welcoming environment for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered youth.

"It's vitally important," said James of Bean's presence. "MLB has been a trailblazer in diversity with a rich history going back to Jackie Robinson, and the LGBT issue is very important. For a lot of kids, feeling ostracized and not having any place to go, I think it's wonderful that baseball has taken such a lead role in making sure everybody is welcome. We're thrilled and honored to have Billy here with us, and I know our leagues are going to embrace him. We're aware that some leagues have LGBT kids involved, and we've heard stories about how some of those kids feel they don't belong. We want to be able to say, 'You're welcome here, too,' and it's absolutely the right thing to do."

An organization named Up2Us will present a workshop called "Change the Game" on Friday, and emissaries from the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation will speak about molding the future athletes and citizens of America. After lunch, there will be a talk hosted by the Partnership for Drug-Free Kids.

There will be several other programs Saturday, including a presentation from the Positive Coaching Alliance. RBI is expanding from metropolitan areas into the rural south now, and James said that many of those markets share the same socioeconomic factors as the inner-city core of the program.

Together, the rural and the urban markets seek to collaborate on finding a better path for the kids in their community, and the RBI Institute is a chance to bring everyone together in one place. Collectively, these people will be the catalysts in building RBI and in molding the future of America's youth.

"They're the boots on the ground and they're the ones impacting these kids every day," said James. "We step in with the support for things like the Institute or organizing tournaments like the RBI World Series, but the reality is that a large majority of these kids won't be able to play in those tourneys. The experience that's being provided locally is the key, and this institute will really be focused on providing the resources and support to make sure the kids are having a positive experience locally."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.