AUSTIN, Texas — The loud cheers of parents, the clank of bats and the smell of grilled southern sausages filled the air at Delwood Sports Complex, creating the quintessential backdrop of how Saturday mornings are meant to be spent.
“Baseball and softball can bring together a community in a really special way that you couldn’t really fabricate without the sport,” said RBI Austin founder and director Matt Price.
Price who started RBI Austin in 2011, brought the players of the program to volunteer at Major League Baseball’s doubleheader Play Ball event Saturday morning. Participants of the double session, some picking up a bat for the very first time, ran through fundamental stations including agility, grounders and popups, and baserunning. The event supported RBI Austin and Boys & Girls Clubs of the Austin area.
The infectious energy of players all around made it difficult to believe that before the advent of RBI Austin, baseball was hard to come by in this community.
“Some of these leagues, including where we’re sitting right now, didn’t have enough teams to run a league or have a division in each age group,” said Price.
Born out of Reagan High School in the inner city of Austin, which hadn’t won a baseball game in eight years, Price took that team fresh off wrapping up his own college career and turned it around. What he discovered was a thirst for baseball in a community looking to teach its kids basic life lessons.
“We’ve seen inner-city kids that are now going off to college, some of them playing ball, some of them just going to college, and for us the end game is not baseball or softball, it’s these lives,” Price said. “We like to talk about Major League citizens, them being leaders in their community.”
RBI Austin now offers baseball and softball, has more than 1,200 kids ages 4-18 participating and a year-round mentoring program. Price encourages parents all over the country to visit MLB.com to see if there is an RBI program close by. If there isn’t, he encourages those interested to reach out to the league and inquire about starting a program of their own.
“MLB will provide you all the support and training to run it effectively, because they have these programs all over the world,” Price said. “They’ll do events like this, where they’ll bring in USA Baseball and USA Softball to promote your program. Having MLB on your chest gets kids, principals of schools and business leaders excited to be a part of it.”
Major League Baseball has 216 RBI leagues and 200,000 kids ages 4-18 playing softball and baseball across the country, but the program is not just for inner-city communities.
“You hear us say underserved kids, underserved communities a lot, that allows us to paint with a very wide brush in regard to demographics, whether it be race, gender or location,” said David James, MLB’s vice president of youth programs. “We are seeing an uptick in RBI leagues popping up in rural locations across the country where there’s not a lot of funds to support it, access to fields, things like that.”
With the help of the U.S. Conference of Mayors, MLB is able to spread the scope and reach of the programs as well. With more than 200 mayors from cities across the country, the league is able to engage with communities outside of the Major and Minor League footprints.
“I know how important baseball was to me growing up,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said. “Being part of a team sport teaches you a lot about working with other people and coming together for a common goal.”
Adler, who played as a kid, was also invited to a free-agent tryout camp with the Pittsburgh Pirates in his heyday. A memory he was able to relive with nine-year MLB veterans Ross Ohlendorf and Drew Stubbs, clinicians at Saturday’s Play Ball event.
“Some of them, it’s the first time playing baseball, but you can tell after a few minutes they start to relax and enjoy it,” Ohlendorf said. “Some of them are really good, too.”
While the vast majority of the RBI leagues across the country are considered community-based recreational programs, approximately 60-70 RBI leagues are competitive. For the competitive division, 13-18 year olds in baseball and softball have an opportunity to enter teams into tournament play to participate in sectional and regional tournaments. Austin will host this year’s Southwest regional. If teams win the regional, they’ll advance to the RBI World Series.
“We’re very proud of the work we do at the RBI World Series. It is important for us to treat those kids just like they’re Major League players,” James said. “For 2018, we’re excited to announce that the Minnesota Twins will be the host.”
With Major League clubs getting more and more involved in their local RBI teams, kids are getting exposure and instruction from players at the highest level.
“I’ve had a little bit of involvement with RBI Austin,” Ohlendorf said. “Matt Price and his team, and the impact they’re having on the community and the kids is just phenomenal and something I’m proud to be involved with.”