Community and youth efforts bring baseball to a wider audience
By Spencer Fordin
The work is rewarding, fulfilling and never-ending. Major League Baseball has created several initiatives in recent seasons to forge a stronger connection to the community, and those efforts are making a mark. The MLB Urban Youth Academies are flourishing, and last season's Play Ball event brought thousands of kids closer to the sport.
MLB hosted the first event of this year's Breakthrough Series over the weekend at Tempe Diablo Stadium in Arizona, and approximately 60 kids were invited to participate. All of the kids, selected from urban and underserved communities, were chosen for a crash course in chasing a baseball future.
Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs, said the Breakthrough Series is a key chance for kids to prepare to compete at the next level. This year, with five events in the Breakthrough Series, MLB may be able to inspire up to 300 kids to attend college or play professionally.
"We're trying to give them the best instruction and information we can in order to give them an opportunity to get exposure on a larger scale," said Reagins. "We want them to be seen by college coaches and pro scouts. We've expanded from three events to five events, and we're doing a softball component at our academy in Houston this year for the first time. We're excited about that."
The Breakthrough Series was established in 2008, and the success of the Urban Youth Academies and the RBI program -- short for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- has made it easier to identify potential candidates. Thirty players with Breakthrough Series experience were selected in last season's MLB Draft, and dozens of others enrolled in collegiate baseball and softball programs.
Reagins, speaking on Saturday, one day before Martin Luther King Day, said there's plenty of room for growth in the future. Baseball is quickly getting more and more expensive at the youth level, he said, and the sport will benefit from an even larger pool of people who want to play it at a high level.
"Dr. King was about opportunity and a level playing field," he said. "Families have to invest significant dollars to travel and play in tournaments. We're trying to provide chances to kids that can't afford it, and we think eliminating the economic barrier opens opportunities to kids of various backgrounds. We think if we can fund it and give these kids a chance to get seen, that's our obligation to enrich the game."
Another community-related endeavor, the Diversity Business Summit, is rounding into the final stages of preparation. Wendy Lewis, MLB's senior vice president of diversity and strategic alliances, met with Phoenix-area executives last week in advance of the early-March event.
The Summit, which seeks to connect minorities and underserved members of the public with business opportunities in baseball, will take place March 8-9 at Chase Field and Salt River Fields, the Spring Training home of the D-backs and Rockies. Lewis said that enrollment has been swift this year, and she's anticipating another blockbuster event.
"It's absolutely thrilling, and that's because we're going to be able to celebrate Spring Training for the very first time," said Lewis. "We'll be able to show off one of our premier facilities, because the location for the Summit itself is actually going to be at a big league stadium -- Arizona's Chase Field -- for the first time. We've always gone to a game as part of the summit, but to actually have the trade fair and all the business meetings and the Commissoner's keynote remarks at the stadium itself is really cool."
Lewis said that several members of the military veterans' community have been part of the Summit in recent seasons, and she hopes to see that trend continue. MLB has improved its relationships with historically black colleges and universities and with womens' business councils that promote entrepreneurship.
But perhaps most important, the clubs have found a fertile hiring ground for future workers. With every year the Summit grows, said Lewis, it becomes an even greater success story in business.
"The clubs are excited. They look forward to coming, and each one has increased [its] commitment to using the Summit to recruit," she said. "All 30 clubs participate, and we've seen almost 90 people get what we consider unique job opportunities. Large numbers of people have gone from part-time to full-time, and we've seen a couple folks get promoted more than once. And on the business side, we've really seen this grow exponentially. As a result of the Summit, well over $11 million has been spent with women-owned and minority-owned businesses, and that's not just ethnic minority representation, but also LGBT, women, people with disabilities and veterans' groups. We can see that the Summit is working."
Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs, presides over a wide range of community activities and oversees the league's relationships with such charities as New York Cares and the Boys & Girls Club of America. Year after year, said Brasuell, the league holds coat drives and canned food drives, and it even hosts a Winter Wishes program that provides gifts for 125 children from urban areas.
Brasuell noted that last year President Obama celebrated a day of service at a Boys & Girls Club, and he said that MLB has been proud to be associated with the mentoring program for years on end.
"Boys & Girls Club is important from a whole bunch of standpoints," said Brasuell. "They serve more than four million kids worldwide, and they're making sure those kids are educated, healthy and fit. The majority of their kids are under 12, and it's a nearly even split of boys and girls. And with their pillars of health and wellness, character and education, they're looking to build a well-rounded child."
Brasuell said the charity and MLB have helped Hall of Famer Hank Aaron to establish the Chasing the Dream Foundation, which enables children to receive grants to follow their greatest ambitions. And he said the memory of another Hall of Famer, Roberto Clemente, will be prominent in the news this spring.
MLB has moved up the annual remembrance of Roberto Clemente Day -- which recognizes the community-minded and humanitarian players of the league -- from September to May 31, and Brasuell said it will be more poignant this year because it will be held in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
Clemente, who became an icon and a legend, was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He died in a plane crash on his way to a humanitarian aid mission on New Year's Eve in 1972. This year, the celebration held in his honor will be close to home, and Brasuell wants to make sure MLB is prepared.
That means scouting out the San Juan area for a place worthy of renovation. Brasuell wants to make sure that he gets MLB working in the community that Clemente left behind.
"Right in tune with what Dr. King stood for, we [had] our own great humanitarian in baseball in Roberto Clemente," said Brasuell. "Vera Clemente, Roberto's widow, is MLB's Goodwill Ambassador, and we've tradtionally visited hospitals and done other projects with her on Roberto Clemente Day. We certainly expect to do a number of things like that in Puerto Rico this year, and as a matter of fact, I'll be there on Martin Luther King Day to look for a couple sites where we can potentially do a volunteer project."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.