RBI Institute connects, educates league organizers

MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- With a year of reorganization under its belt, MLB's youth programs department spread its wings Friday at the biennial RBI Institute, a seminar designed to advance the cause of youth baseball in economically underprivileged areas.

David James, MLB's vice president for youth programs, members of his staff and an array of potential partners met at the Peabody Hotel to discuss what's ahead for more than 100 league presidents and commissioners representing thousands of youngsters who compete in RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities) programs in the United States and abroad.

"We thank you all for your patience with us in 2016 as we transitioned and put together this program, and we're excited about where we are now and how we are going to go forward," James told the group, which he described as "the boots on the ground where developing our game is concerned."

The new department is tasked with servicing youth baseball and softball organizations and grassroots efforts with an eye toward increasing opportunities for underserved youth. In addition, it works to maximize development and educational programs, while providing platforms where players identified as potentially elite prospects can perform for college recruiters and pro scouts. James outlined MLB's partnership with both USA Baseball and USA Softball to help develop these initiatives.

The Play Ball initiative is one such effort. It will host more than 300 events for youth, using plastic bats and balls "that will allow them to be introduced to the game the way many of us did," James said. "We want them to just have fun, have a positive, enjoyable experience -- and at the end of 90 minutes think to themselves, 'Hey, baseball or softball's a fun thing. Where do I sign up?'"

2017 Play Ball summer effort

A Play Ball event will take place Saturday at AutoZone Park, home of the Pacific Coast League's Memphis Redbirds, which supports a dozen RBI leagues with 1,000 participants in the Memphis area. Nearly three quarters of the conference's attendees said they would volunteer, according to James, in part to see what might be done in their communities.

Several of the RBI commissioners dropped by USA Softball's booth to see what support they might be able to offer in expanding the program's reach to girls. James said there will also be initiatives "for those girls who want to keep playing baseball."

James touted active support from big leaguers like Cleveland's Francisco Lindor and Tampa Bay's Chris Archer. Hall of Famers Cal Ripken Jr. and Ken Griffey Jr., and Olympic champion softball pitcher Jennie Finch will also be part of future activities, James said.

Chris Archer on the RBI program

The seminar featured a full day of breakout sessions aimed at helping organizers develop and grow their leagues, along with vendors featuring foundations, equipment suppliers and demonstrations of the latest in high-tech wizardry.

One of the tech companies, League Apps, has developed an app that can help ease communication between players, coaches and parents and reach out to potential volunteers and sponsors.

Organizations like The Baseball Tomorrow Fund and The Foundation Center offered information on how to reach potential philanthropic donors, and presented online tools available to effectively apply for grants. 

"With these types of grants, you have to think big picture and look for things that will benefit an organization in the long term," said Baseball Tomorrow Fund executive director Cathy Bradley.

That kind of support was music to the ears of Hector Perez, whose Union League Boys and Girls Clubs in Chicago have grown in popularity, in part due to the Cubs' magic ride to a World Series title.

"We had 25 teams last year, and we've gotten eight new teams with 20 players on a side coming on board next year," Perez said. "I'm all about fundraising here."

Dr. Evan Chambers and his wife, Denise, run a half-dozen leagues in north Florida, serving 400 youngsters. They do so in memory of their son, Evan Michael, a Pittsburgh Pirates Minor Leaguer who died suddenly of a genetic heart condition in December 2013. This was their first trip to the RBI Institute.

"There's so much out there that's available," said Dr. Chambers, a radiologist, "but there's so much work we've now got to do."

Veteran volunteer and organizer Glenn Coleman is a former Minor Leaguer who, with wife Lisa, runs the Arizona RBI program that produced the 2016 RBI Senior World Series championship team. He's seen plenty of new folks and he's ready with sound advice.

"You see the new ones with the big eyes and the overwhelmed looks," Coleman said. "I tell them, just pick out one thing you want to make better right now. Once that's done, then move on to the next."

Peter Wickham is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.