Together, they have traveled from the small stage to the big one.
Several graduates of Major League Baseball's RBI program -- which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- have gone on to stardom in the big leagues, and a few were still alive in the postseason entering Wednesday night. Six of the 10 playoff teams, in fact, have at least one alumnus of the RBI program on board.
Two players with RBI ties -- Tampa Bay first baseman James Loney and Cleveland outfielder Michael Bourn -- were involved in Wednesday night's American League Wild Card Game. Two more -- outfielders Chris Young and Coco Crisp -- play for the Oakland A's, champions of the AL West.
There is also star power in the group, with the Braves' Justin Upton and the Dodgers' Carl Crawford representing the RBI program. Jackie Bradley Jr., one of the game's heralded youngsters, has a chance to be on the roster when the Red Sox suit up for the American League Division Series.
"We're very fortunate," said Tom Brasuell, MLB's vice president of community affairs. "RBI gives a couple hundred thousand kids the opportunity to play baseball and softball each year, and every time a player gets drafted, it's kind of like a bonus. Loney, Crawford and Crisp have all played in the RBI World Series, so of course we'd be looking forward to them playing in the World Series."
Around for more than 20 years, RBI has seen incredible growth over the last six years. Track back to 2008, in fact, and the program had fewer than 100,000 kids. That number has doubled in the last five seasons, thanks largely to the advent of a Jr. RBI division and expansion to new areas.
"It's pretty cool," Loney said. "Just seeing those guys progress is awesome. [Being in the program] was fun. I was young. We got to go to Disney World and stuff like that. It was a good time."
There are participating RBI leagues all over the country, and under the leadership of program director David James, there has even been international outgrowth. There are kids and teams from the Dominican Republic, Curacao, Venezuela and soon Panama playing under the RBI umbrella.
"The growth has definitely been world-wide, and the biggest growth has come from the Jr. RBI program, which gives kids ages 5 to 12 a chance to learn, enjoy and play the game of baseball," Brasuell said of the next generation of RBI alumni. "We've had huge growth there, and I think the age group is responsible for abut 50 percent of the growth of the program. We're reaching younger kids, and the program is world-wide now. When we have a World Series, it's truly a World Series."
Brasuell said the current base of MLB players have been fantastic with the RBI program, interacting with the kids at the stadium and holding free instructional clinics to further their game. Furthermore, he said, all 30 teams supported the RBI leagues, and about 20 of them ran a league directly.
But it is the most visible faces -- players like Crawford and Loney who make it out of an RBI league and all the way to the Majors -- who make the biggest difference. They are in the postseason, and they are highly visible, and they give hope to all the children currently enrolled in the program.
And if baseball does not work out, there is always the program's other main emphasis: scholarship. RBI stresses the importance of academics and has made a huge difference with the RBI for RBI Scholarship, a $5,000 a year grant for student-athletes who particularly excel in the classroom.
Major League Baseball has distributed a little more than 60 of those scholarships since 2008, and it recently celebrated the first graduating class of RBI scholars. There is another group graduating this year, and for Brasuell, they tell the story of the program as well as any Major Leaguer.
"They say, 'You know, if it weren't for RBI, I may not have been able to go to college,'" Brasuell said. "'This cemented how important college was, and it's because of RBI that I'm able to go to college.' We see how key that is, and there's no beating the connection and support of an MLB program."
The RBI program is already well represented on the field and beyond, and the outgrowth is only beginning.
"We kind of hit a home run when we got David James from Little League Baseball," Brasuell said. "He's just really been a great find, and his staff has been exceptional and a huge reason for the growth of the program -- both at the tournament level and beyond. I think we had a record amount of teams participating in regional tournaments this year, and we've expanded our training for coaches."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less