Off-the-field youth endeavors important to Bucs

Off-the-field youth endeavors important to Bucs

PITTSBURGH -- While Pirates wins encourage fans to raise Jolly Rogers, the team itself is thoroughly immersed in helping raise well-coached and adjusted ballplayers in the Greater Pittsburgh area.

Principally through the efforts of Pirates Charities, the club supports numerous programs in a far-reaching mission to enhance youth participation on every level of amateur baseball. Those already playing the game are counseled on how to play it properly and well-conditioned. Those previously unable to play, due either to economic or physical limitations, are given access.

It starts at the very top of the amateur scale -- the high school level -- and winds through playgrounds and sandlots to Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.

Moderated by Pirates head trainer Todd Tomczyk, an annual PLAY Clinic counsels high school players on a healthy lifestyle and the perils of steroids.

Educating those already in the game is one thing, but the Bucs are far more involved as enablers. Those efforts range from helping improve existing facilities -- $874,000 in 197 matching grants in five years to youth organizations -- to helping fund diamonds for those who had none -- the Miracle League initiative for special-needs kids.

"Supporting kids playing baseball and softball is of utmost importance to the Pirates," said Patricia Paytas, who runs the club's community and public-affairs department. "We hope to gain a better understanding of the obstacles that prohibit kids from playing, and help provide them with the opportunities, facilities and equipment they need to do so."

No group faces bigger obstacles than kids with disabilities, and the Pirates have been knocking down those walls -- and clearing them to make room for specially designed playing fields -- since 2009 through the Miracle Fields program whose seventh field gets unveiled Saturday in Indiana, Pa.

About 1,000 special-needs athletes are taking advantage of Miracle League fields in the Pittsburgh region, and the Bucs also actively support a similar program in their Spring Training base of Bradenton, Fla.

Miracle League Camp Events

The Fields for Kids matching grant program's ceiling was recently doubled to $10,000 in response to the needs of baseball and softball organizations. The club made 45 individual grants in 2014 alone.

Potential future players in those organizations get a head start in doing baseball right as Junior Pirates -- a joint instructional program with the city of Pittsburgh for kids 4 to 8. Besides basic baseball coaching, the kids get T-shirts, caps and pairs of tickets to Junior Pirates Day at PNC Park.

The crowning endeavor is RBI, the most widespread and potentially most consequential program. More than 1,000 kids, 6 to 18, receive financial support in this joint initiative between Pirates Charities and the Boys & Girls Clubs of Western Pennsylvania. More specifically, the Bucs sponsor the participation of two teams in the annual RBI Regional Tournament, scheduled this summer for Cleveland.

A key event of the RBI support is the offseason coaches clinic taught by former Pirates players and intended to provide kids with the caring and knowledgeable coaches required for their development in the game. Seventy to 80 coaches attend each clinic.

"Too few coaches has been identified as one of the most significant obstacles for innner-city youth to play baseball," Paytas explained. "We hope to ... encourage and support all of the young people in our community to play baseball and softball."

Tom Singer is a reporter for MLB.com and writes an MLBlog Change for a Nickel. Follow him on Twitter @Tom_Singer. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.