ST. PAUL, Minn. -- When the players representing the Mt. Vernon RBI program ran onto Jim Kelley Field on Friday night, they knew they hadn't made the team because of their big bats or dazzling pitching. Instead, each player had earned his trip to Minnesota through academic achievement, thanks to a selection process that reflected the off-field goals of the program.
Mt. Vernon, N.Y., started its Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program in conjunction with Major League Baseball in 2012. When Rich Sauerhaft became the president of the program last year, he wanted to use it as a vehicle to teach kids sportsmanship and other important life skills. After all, while one of the goals of the RBI program is to increase participation in baseball and softball among under-served youths, other goals include encouraging academic achievement and teaching the value of teamwork.
So when his program was selected to play in this year's non-competitive Jr. RBI Classic for 11- and 12-year-olds, the 15-year youth coaching veteran thought outside the box when picking from the 70 eligible kids in his league.
"[MLB] talked about how it was not meant to be for the best players, because the best players always get these kinds of trips," Sauerhaft said. "They were looking for the best kids. I tried to figure out, how could I choose the best kids in a way that wasn't just totally subjective?"
His solution: Require each athlete interested in joining the trip to put together an application consisting of his most recent report card and an essay on the topic of "what baseball has taught me about life." He gathered the applications, removed the names and gave them to his daughter, who has a Master's degree in English. She judged them, and they selected a few kids with the best grades and a few kids with the best essays, and filled the roster out with students who were strong in both areas.
Dimitri Airall wrote about how, after being bullied, baseball taught him how to "be brave and do your best." Isaiah Rowell used his essay to discuss how he had been persistent and went from being one of the worst players on the team to one of the best.
Through the essays, Sauerhaft was able to construct a team of kids who were dedicated to the sport and enthusiastic about the trip to Minnesota.
"There were a lot of other kids who declined to even try to be on the trip when they were told they would need to write an essay or give up their report card," Sauerhaft said. "Of the 70 kids who were eligible, we had a shockingly low number actually submit stuff. But everybody who's here submitted their stuff, and as far as I'm concerned, everybody who's here earned their way on this trip."
For the kids who decided to participate, the benefits went beyond getting to play in a baseball tournament. Sauerhaft recalled the story of one athlete who turned in his essay on a dog-eared sheet of paper, looking nervous as he approached the coach to turn in his work. But his piece was deemed to be one of the best submissions, and after Sauerhaft told him that, he saw his confidence grow.
"A couple weeks later, Major League Baseball asked us to have an essay written on overcoming obstacles," Sauerhaft said. "The kid who the first time around turned in a page and a half, having been told he was a good writer, when the assignment called for three paragraphs, he turned in six handwritten pages. The short one was better than the long one, but I thought the idea that he was so encouraged that he now had something to say was a really great thing."
Once the Mt. Vernon players took the field on Friday night, they seemed to be soaking up the words of their coaches, who were chosen because they best preached sportsmanship.
"I wasn't really into the game, because it's all about working as a team, showing that we should work as a team and going out there to have fun," said team captain Mateo Nicholas. "This isn't really about going back home as a winner."
As the team donned Yankees uniforms and took on the Boys & Girls Club of Pawtucket (R.I.) RBI, the coaches preached for them to relax, focus on baseball and enjoy the situation they were in. After all, this week is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for these kids, many of whom had never been outside of Mt. Vernon.
"Sportsmanship and fun and going into a sport that you like to do is the key," said Mt. Vernon coach Jack Price. "It's always a good thing to come to special events like this. The kids, they look forward to it. Their eyes light up."
The Jr. RBI selection process is part of a great effort Sauerhaft is making to shift the focus of the Mt. Vernon league.
"I don't care if our teams win. I care how our kids act. I care how our parents act," Sauerhaft said. "Sportsmanship and proper behavior and the idea that sports and playing on a team like this is preparing them for the job world. Jobs work really the same way that sports teams do. That's really the important thing for us and for me."
Caitlin Swieca is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.