I grew up in a baseball house. Every night during the spring, summer and early fall I sat with my father and watched the Baltimore Orioles from the comforts of my living room. Five or six times a year, my dad and I would drive 20 miles into Baltimore and watch the game at old Memorial Stadium and more recently, Camden Yards. If I wasn't watching the Orioles, I was playing baseball in my backyard or at a beautiful park just a block down the street from my house. I was just three-years-old when the Orioles won the World Series in 1983, unfortunately too young to remember that magical season in Baltimore.
When you love baseball as much as I did as a kid, you always dream of playing in the World Series. You play in the backyard with a wiffle ball bat, and in my case, stood right-handed or left-handed in the batter's box depending on which major leaguer you were trying to impersonate that day. Bottom of the ninth inning, your team down a run with two outs in Game 7. The ball floats up to the plate (remember, this is a wiffle ball) and you connect for a game winning home run over the fence.
The fence is made of plywood and you have to retrieve the ball in your neighbor's yard, but everything else is just like it is in the big leagues. Running around the bases (or in my case touching whatever tree or t-shirt constituted a base) you can almost hear the screaming fans celebrating with you.
My story is very similar to that of a lot of young boys who grow up playing and watching America's pastime. But for years in East Harlem, that story might as well been a fairy tale. No backyards for wiffle ball, no ballparks for the neighborhood kids to gather and play. The World Series wasn't on their minds, getting home safe from school definitely was. Then something changed.
The national RBI program began in 1989 in Los Angeles, California. Three years later, and twenty-two years ago, a group of kids and volunteers in New York City took an abandoned lot on East 100th Street and turned it into a Field of Dreams. In a place where drug dealers used to conduct business, kids could now play baseball and feel safe in the neighborhood where they lived. Harlem RBI was born.
The World Series dreams of kids in East Harlem recently became a reality. Last week, players from the 18-under Harlem RBI Grays and Kings joined hundreds of other young men in the RBI World Series in Minneapolis/St. Paul Minnesota. The RBI (Reviving Baseball in our Inner Cities) program is Major League Baseball's internationally recognized program that serves hundreds of thousands of young ballplayers coast to coast in the United States and throughout the world. The RBI World Series was undoubtedly a once-in-a-lifetime experience for any kid, but it was especially significant for the team from East Harlem.
For these hundreds of thousands of young people in RBI, like the more than 1500 kids in Harlem RBI, the program is about so much more than baseball. In addition to having fun on the field, RBI stresses education, character development and growth. In Harlem RBI, the boys and girls (there is a softball program as well) are mentored and coached after school and during the summer. In an area of New York City that sees over half of students drop out of high school, Harlem RBI has graduated 97 percent of their members over the past several years.
As a kid I had every opportunity to play, learn, and grow. My parents, teachers, and coaches all contributed to my growth as a baseball player and a person. My World Series dream came true in 2009 as a member of the New York Yankees. And while I didn't hit a walk-off home run in Game 7, the solo-shot in Game 2 was and is one of the highlights of my baseball career. As I was rounding the bases that night in the Bronx I said to myself, "I just hit a home run in the World Series".
After I caught the final out of the Yankees 27th World Series title, I met my father in the clubhouse and we enjoyed a very emotional embrace, where I thanked him for teaching me to play and love the game of baseball. All children need heroes and role models. All children deserve the opportunity to reach their goals and have their dreams come true.
In the Twin Cities the last two weeks, the young men and women from RBI programs in the U.S. and the Dominican Republic have lived their World Series dreams. It may not be the big leagues, but it's a program that all fans need to celebrate with just as much emotion. If you're in New York and you stop by that beautiful ballpark on East 100th Street that is Harlem RBI's "Field of Dreams," you will see heroes and role models working with kids ready to reach their goals. The kids at Harlem RBI and RBI programs from all over know that it doesn't matter whether they brought home the title from Minnesota or not... they are all already champions.