"We've been trying to find more competitive elements for our fastest growing age group ... Maybe 150,000-160,000 kids in our program this year will be 12 and under," said MLB Director of RBI David James. "In the past, we've only had competitive tournaments for older age groups. This is a pilot program to keep a higher percentage of kids in the program from age 12 to 13."
The teams played six-inning games over the weekend, with pitch counts in place for the pitchers and 12 players to a team. That low number means each kid gets an opportunity to play multiple positions every game.
There were even a few scouts in attendance, not so much for immediate purposes but to ensure that the inner-city talent gets a fair shot at getting access to more thorough scouting opportunities once they reach high school.
"This is a way to get these kids on the radar too, participating in a showcase event at no cost to them," James said. "That's a responsibility MLB takes very seriously, and an important function of RBI."
In Sunday's consolation game, the hometown Houston squad beat the Rangers of DFW to snare a third-place finish.
In the championship, the New Orleans squad roared to a five-run first inning and cruised to an 18-1 win over the Baton Rouge Lions -- even as some storm clouds again threatened the glimmering Sylvester Turner Park fields on Houston's north side.
At first glance, the all-Louisiana matchup may have seemed surprising. But James said it was hardly shocking since the state's RBI affiliates rank among the fastest-growing nationally, with almost 3,000 participants in the Baton Rouge-area alone.
"This is our fifth year ... Came in 2010, formed the organization and looked for bigger affiliate to be a part of," said director of Lousiana youth baseball Leroy Hollins. "RBI, their mission was very similar to our mission, so we partnered with them, and from that day it's been flourishing."
Separate from the baseball itself, James emphasized that the experience be a "Major League" one for the kids. Logoed charter buses shuttled the kids around town.
They attended two Astros games, including Friday's Civil Rights Game in Minute Maid Park. Texas Southern housed them for the weekend, with talks from professors and coaches included in the stay.
"RBI is a way to create Major League citizens, not just players," James said. "It gets kids thinking about what it's like to go to college. They saw a Civil Rights Game and the history there. That's impactful to them."
Hollins said the event was one of the few times many of the participants get to go beyond their own neighborhood, much less consider college or broadening their horizons.
"It's great to have the kids interact with other kids from different cities," Hollins said. "A lot of them don't often leave the communities they live in. This gives them a chance to see new things and really learn a lot about what they're capable of."
James said he envisions more regional tournaments for more age groups, with this year simply providing a "road map" for future tournaments. With Houston's pristine Urban Youth Academy, it was a natural option to make the program more than just fielding drills and practice for the younger age group.
"We have the facilities here, and this is a great start as the Houston RBI group gets going this spring," said Astros UYA director Daryl Wade.
"So much at their age is giving them an opportunity to compete. When you put these meaningful games on a regional scale, they get to see how grand baseball can be."