The Institute, a semi-annual meeting designed to allow the administrators of local RBI leagues to get a look at the big picture, brought nearly 100 participants to the Hyatt Regency Orlando Airport for the three-day conference. Once there, they took turns aiding each other in their best practices and best hopes to help grow the RBI endeavor in future seasons.
David James, director of the RBI program, said recently that the three-day affair was a huge success. More than 60 RBI leagues were represented, a slight downtick from last year's RBI Institute in San Diego. James said that was by design, though, in order to offer a chance for some of the newer leagues and others that need attention to get it on a smaller stage.
"A lot of the focus this time -- and a key theme to the Institute -- was, 'Who are you as a league?'" said James. "Is the sole purpose of your league player development? And if it is, that's OK, but what are your deliverables? As a result of kids playing in your program, how many of them are playing high school baseball or softball? How many kids in your program are utilizing their experiences at RBI to help secure college scholarships? On the other hand, if you're using the RBI element to provide positive programming for kids and for your community, what are those deliverables? How many of the kids in your program are graduating high school? The common theme: As a result of RBI, how many kids are you getting into college? That's important for the local leagues in terms of getting funding, whether it be on a national stage or on the local level."
Several issues were on the radar at this year's RBI Institute, chief among them fundraising and advanced tips in recruiting and retaining students and volunteers. The RBI administrators also introduced a new intranet website that will allow the respective leagues to streamline communication and have easy access to league resources, logos and calendars.
There was also a trade show that introduced the leagues to vendors and MLB licensees, and a screening of the upcoming movie "42" based on the life story of baseball and civil-rights icon Jackie Robinson. Another key facet of the Institute was a group program that focused on bullying, drug and alcohol use and other issues of note to today's youth.
But perhaps the most important part was letting the administrators of the respective RBI leagues know that they're not on an island. They got to talk to each other and realize that there are people on a similar mission in other cities, and they could compare and contrast notes on what has worked in the endeavor and what clearly needs to be changed.
"It's great for us to go to the Institute so we can see what others have going for them and what are their needs. That helps us in planning how we can give back to our organization, locally," said Jon Joaquin, the manager of fan development programs for the Philadelphia Phillies. "There were about 100 people there, and we were able to interact and share our best practices. People are learning more and more about RBI, and it's becoming more of a standard, instead of a grass-roots program."
The RBI leagues have not completed their registration drives for the upcoming season, but James said he believes there will be a record number of participants this season. RBI has grown steadily over the last few years, and in fact has more than doubled its participation since 2008 (92,500), the last year before the implementation of Jr. RBI divisions.
The next season saw huge growth -- as participants surged to 127,000 -- and 2010 (171,000) continued the trend. RBI leagues cracked 200,000 participants for the first time in '11 (202,000), and it surged to 211,000 last season. Part of that massive growth, said James, has been a willingness for RBI to aggressively expand into markets that make sense.
"I think what's really interesting overall for RBI is we are seeing growth in the rural south," said James, "Louisiana. Alabama. Mississippi. The Carolinas. Virginia. We're seeing a lot of new leagues pop up in those locations. And we had a long discussion about this at the Institute. The program is called Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, but our focus is on underserved kids and underserved communities. If you look at some of the markets we're expanding in, a lot of these new communities have some of the same socioeconomic characteristics that you might see in a large metropolitan area. You might not classify them as inner city, but we want to make sure we provide that same sort of programming and opportunities to those areas."
Joaquin said he has been to eight RBI institutes over his time with the Phillies, and he said it's been remarkable to see the way that RBI has been able to grow by leaps and bounds. Joaquin works with local RBI leagues year-round, and he said that Philadelphia may have more to work with after the completion of the city's upcoming Urban Youth Academy.
That facility is still in the construction stages, and Joaquin said that it would give the local RBI leagues a place to play their tournaments and to gather for clinics and other educational activities. Joaquin said he enjoyed sharing ideas to improve RBI leagues at the Institute, and he also said he's excited to see how the project will grow in future seasons.
"We are one of those programs that stands out," he said. "We're not just the RBI, the little program. We've gained notoriety throughout the youth baseball world. Pony and the Babe Ruth leagues -- they're all learning about RBI. I think that's huge for RBI as far as recognition, and it seems like a lot of people are getting excited. With the tons and tons of resources that we're getting for these programs, there are ways that they can learn how to fundraise and help create some things. I really think that we've set a big step forward in terms of laying groundwork and getting some of these other leagues up and running."
Now, at parks all around the country, there are children playing baseball who may not have had a chance without the assistance of local volunteers who raise funds, coach and sometimes even umpire. RBI programs are gaining steam around the nation, producing a self-sustaining pool of people who want to give back to society any way that they can.
"We take pride in our community outreach programs, and this is just one of the many programs that we do. This really helps create a great experience for the kids that are involved," Joaquin said of the Phillies. "Not only do they get to learn about the sport, they get to leave each summer and each season with a great memory of the Phillies. Hopefully, they'll even get treated to a baseball game by us or they'll participate in a clinic that's hosted by us. We try to round out the experience for them. They're not just playing games at their local fields. They'll be able to get some extra added bonuses along the way."