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Richard Justice

Field in Austin proves power of RBI program

Field in Austin proves power of RBI program

Field in Austin proves power of RBI program
This is a story about the construction of a baseball field. At least, that's what it's supposed to be about.

In the end, though, it goes way deeper than just a baseball field. You see, baseball fields are not simple things.

If you're not careful, you'll miss what the neatly cut grass and carefully drawn lines really mean.

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Thanks to this particular baseball field, a dying high school team in Austin, Texas, is thriving. Thanks to this field, 120 youngsters are playing a sport they'd never thought much about, and hundreds more have attended weekend clinics.

And this is just beginning.

This baseball field will celebrate its first birthday in a few days, and its impact on so many lives is nothing short of amazing.

"So many people had a passion for making this happen," said Cathy Bradley, executive director of the Baseball Tomorrow Fund.

Amid lessons on hitting the cutoff man, teamwork and learning how to win and lose, there's something else going on.

"It's incredible to think about how a community -- and so many lives -- have been impacted," said Matt Price, the head of Austin's Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) program.

This is exactly the kind of thing Major League Baseball and the Major League Baseball Players Association had in mind when they formed the Baseball Tomorrow Fund in 1999 with an initial commitment of $10 million.

Their goal was to grow the game around the world, to build fields and buy equipment and hire coaches. In the past 12 years, it has taken the game to remote corners of the world, and to places like Austin, too.

The Austin project wouldn't have gotten done without baseball's 30 groundskeepers, especially Dan Bergstrom of the Astros and Eric Hansen of the Dodgers. Nor would it have been a reality without Amanda Jackson, an Austin native who once worked for the Red Sox and Marlins.

In fact, so many people contributed time and money, it would be impossible to name them all.

To see what they've done, take a drive past Reagan High School some Sunday afternoon and see a once abandoned field filled with kids.

Growing the sport is just the tip of a very large iceberg.

"It's more than I could have dreamed of," Bergstrom said.

First, though, let's start at the beginning. This story begins in 2007, when Price graduated from Wheaton College with a degree in business and economics.

He played baseball in college, but figured he was done with the game when he drove to Austin to take a job in banking.

He moved into an apartment with some guys near Reagan High School, and that's where his life took a turn he never expected.

"I had a friend teaching at Reagan, and she said, 'Listen, our baseball program could use some help,'" Price remembered. "'Would you consider talking to our coach and seeing if there's something you can do?'"

Reagan coach Thurman Lewis told him of the challenges he faced keeping the program alive.

"There were days we'd have to get kids out of class to keep from forfeiting a game," Lewis said.

Price couldn't have known it at the time, but he had found his new life. After seeing how far behind the Reagan players were in basic baseball fundamentals, he and some buddies decided Austin needed a summer program for high school kids.

"Reagan wasn't going to compete unless it got some kids with more basic baseball fundamentals," he said.

Price's group hit up family and friends for enough money to start the East Austin Blazers.

"We did some pretty cool things," Price said. "We saw guys develop from a baseball standpoint. We even won a couple of games, and that was the first time these guys had won at the high school level. Reagan had won something like one game in 10 years.

"Probably half these guys were from single-parent homes, and as you got to know the kids, you saw there was the need for an adult figure, especially a male adult figure, in their lives. We didn't go into this thing with the intention of mentoring kids, but that need was there.

"I think baseball gave them some direction and really helped change them as young men. We took on the role of mentors, and it just kind of happened naturally."

And then they decided what Austin really needed was a baseball league for younger kids.

"We thought if you could reach kids at a younger age, you could get to the point where baseball would give them some direction and maybe even pay for college," Price said.

Thus was born the Austin RBI program for kids ages 5-12.

"Somewhere along the way, field renovation came onto our scope," Price said.

He learned that Major League Baseball's groundskeepers renovate dozens of fields a year, including one in the city in which they hold their annual meeting.

Price made a pitch for Reagan. Bergstrom saw it and signed off. Hansen, an Austin native, did the same.

"Dan saw it as a great opportunity to have an impact in the community," Price said.

There was just one problem.

"Reagan was in danger of being shut down after failing the standardized testing level four years in a row," Price said. "If it didn't pass in the fifth year, it could be done."

They pressed ahead anyway.

"Our worst-case scenario was that the field could still be used for clinics, workouts, all that stuff," Price said. "It would be put to great use."

Bergstrom went to work in early 2010, installing a new field and batting cages and moving the outfield fences back.

The Baseball Tomorrow Fund made a large contribution to financing the project. The Astros wrote a check as well. Price, Jackson and others helped raised money.

"I'm guessing Dan made the drive from Houston to Austin at least 40 times," Price said.

For instance, if the Astros had a 6 p.m. Saturday home game, he'd be in Austin by 8 a.m. to work a few hours before heading back to prepare Minute Maid Park.

"I work for great people," Bergstrom said. "The Astros gave me the freedom to do this, and I have a great crew to keep the Major League team happy."

His boss at the time, Astros owner Drayton McLane, emphasized that great franchises are about more than winning.

"It's about using your influence to make a positive difference in the community," Bergstrom said.

All 30 MLB groundskeepers arrived in Austin last January to put the finishing touches on the project.

"It was literally like a dream," Price said. "It was an emotional day to see the finished product and to know what it could mean for the community and families."

Price, now 27, eventually resigned from his banking job and went to work running Austin's RBI program.

"It has just been a series of events," he said. "It's confirmation that this is what God has called me to do. Baseball is a way of mentoring kids and having an impact in the community."

Coach Lewis agrees.

"I've gone from not having enough guys to play a game to having 40 come out for baseball," Lewis said. "It's amazing how having a field has made a difference. The kids see what we have, and they want to be a part of it."

One of Commissioner Bud Selig's favorite phrases is "social conscience."

"I take our responsibility in this area very seriously," Lewis said. "If you can make a difference in lives, you have an obligation to do that."

In the year since the field was finished, Bergstrom has continued to visit Reagan High School to make sure the field is being cared for and also just to see if it's being used.

"When you work in baseball, you have to have a passion for it," Bergstrom said. "We can talk about making the game grow, but we have to go out and make it happen."

That's why he's so thrilled by what has happened with this project.

"It just makes you feel good," he said.

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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