RBI teams celebrate opening evening

RBI teams celebrate opening evening

TORRANCE, Calif. -- The players and coaches of the RBI Softball World Series were treated to a welcome dinner on Tuesday night and had the chance to hear Sharon Robinson, the daughter of Major League Baseball legend Jackie Robinson, speak about the lessons she learned from her father.

Robinson, the director of educational programming for Major League Baseball, announced the winner of the Breaking Barriers essay contest, and compared the courage of the winner, Stephanie Southerland, to that of her father.

Southerland, who plays for Pittsburgh's RBI softball team, wrote about how she managed to stop a fellow classmate from bullying her by arranging a private meeting with the student and the school's principal. Southerland was hit by the bully, but instead of fighting back she thought about the consequences of getting in trouble and not being able to play softball. She decided not to react. Her meeting with the bully resolved their problem and taught her about how to deal with tough situations and issues.

Her maturity and willingness not to fight back despite a physical confrontation was something that Robinson said reminded her of her father when he broke the color barrier with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947.

"When I read this essay I was thinking about my father and what he had to do in his early years in baseball," Robinson said. "He actually had a face-to-face meeting with Branch Rickey, who acted out what it would be like when he would break the color barrier. He told him to hold back that natural reaction of fighting back physically because if you do it will end their experiment and would not move integration farther in baseball. My father ended up agreeing because of the larger picture."

Southerland, who was awarded a laptop for winning the contest, said she was shocked when she was announced the winner.

"I was shaking," she said. "It was really surprising. I didn't think I'd win it. I tried my hardest to write and gave it all my effort so it was really exciting."

Southerland wasn't the only one who won an award during the welcome dinner. Fellow Pittsburgh teammate Courtney Thompkins was awarded a $5,000 "RBI for RBI" scholarship, for college because of her ability on the field and her character off it.

"I felt honored and pleased and blessed that I got it," said Thompkins, who will attend Delaware State University and major in finance. "I was excited to receive money for my education."

Even for those who didn't win awards the night was a lot of fun. The girls from eight teams all over the country, as well as the Dominican Republic, had a chance to interact with each other and hear speeches from Robinson, RBI program director David James, and MLB's vice president of community affairs Tom Brasuell.

"It's very well run," Jersey City coach George Brew said. "It's a great experience for the girls. Most of them haven't seen anything like this before and they get to see what RBI really is and what it stands for."

The girls were also treated to Latin music played by a local musician, with many of the players from Los Angeles and the Dominican Republic dancing together in front of all the players and coaches.

"It was really exciting," Southerland said. "It was a really great night. It's a great opportunity for all of Pittsburgh and for all the teams here. I'm just really proud of everyone and I hope we can do well."

Rhett Bollinger is an associate reporter for mLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.