MLB.com Columnist

Shannon Ford

Breaking Barriers winner 'poised and confident'

Transgender New Jersey RBI softball player impresses with essay

Breaking Barriers winner 'poised and confident'

CINCINNATI -- A standing ovation filled the tent with life at the P&G Cincinnati Youth Academy on Sunday night as Sharon Robinson, MLB's educational consultant and daughter of Jackie Robinson, announced Nikole Cabeza as the Girls Breaking Barriers essay winner to open the 25th annual Softball Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series.

"I was shaking and getting teary-eyed because I worked hard and spent hours on it," Nikole said of her reaction to being chosen.

Wrapping up its 21st year, "Breaking Barriers: In Sports, In Life" is a baseball-themed character education program developed by Major League Baseball, Scholastic and Robinson that encourages students grades 4 through 9 to write about barriers or obstacles they have faced or are still facing in their lives.

"It reinforces with young people that they can overcome obstacles and barriers in their life," Robinson said.

Cabeza, from Hoboken's RBI softball team, was joined by Michael Beltran from Arizona's Junior RBI team and Drevian Nelson from the Astros Senior squad, each with a uniquely inspiring story.

Nikole's narrative walks the reader through the struggle of growing up transgender. Although born a boy, Nikole says she has always identified as female, eventually taking it upon herself to live as a girl all the while, helping her family and friends understand what she was going through.

"Her essay was incredible in that she took us through the entire process," said Robinson. "It's all about process, how they're handling it, and what struck me about her on paper and in person is that she's very poised and confident; she's been through a big struggle and has a big struggle ahead of her and you get the feeling that she will help others."

Inspiring other transgender females to embrace their differences and be confident in who they are is something Nikole is determined to do.

"It was getting my message out there to help other transgender females be who they want to be without people judging them," said Cabeza. "When people think transgender, they think girly girl, but I'm still a tomboy."

Through it all, Nikole says, making her high-school softball team was the moment she realized just how happy she was.

Sports has that effect; it makes us feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves and Breaking Barriers uses America's sport, baseball, as a metaphor for life.

Like Nikole, baseball brings happiness to Nelson's life. It reminds him of his mother, Donna Yvette Williams, who lost her life to breast cancer when Dre was just 10 years old.

Her words, "Hit the ball harder, stay focused, be strong, and fight!" echo in his head every time he takes the field.

"I read that essay twice and cried both times," Robinson said of Drevian's story. "His essay was about loss and was very personal; again he took us through the process, you felt his pain, we understood his mother and what she was going through, it was so special."

In an emotional presentation, in between the junior and senior championship games on Saturday, Sharon also recognized junior participant Beltran for his essay outlining family struggles with money and his drive to get a job and help put food on the table.

Hard work, perseverance and learning to fail are just a few of the life lessons this game can teach young kids. The Breaking Barriers program has reached more than 27 million youths and 3.6 million educators in the United States, Canada and Puerto Rico and culminates at the RBI World Series each year, an event that provides a platform for young people from underserved and diverse communities the opportunity to play baseball and softball.

What does a win at this event mean?

"Oh, everything," said Cabeza. "We worked really hard, practicing together, getting to know each other, bonding and creating that chemistry to win."

Despite their struggles, these kids come out to compete in the game they love, and Breaking Barriers and the RBI World Series provide a stage to show the world who they are.

Shannon Ford is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @Shannon__Ford. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.