Charles Saunders is in his 14th year as the man in charge of the Pittsburgh chapter of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner-Cities (RBI) program, and he's thrilled with a recent development. Namely, a good number of those who participated in the program as kids have returned as young adults to lend a helping hand.
"We have several alumni that have come back and are now working in the system," Saunders said. "It's good stuff seeing them grow up, realize their professional aspirations, and still come back and coach with the organization. I've been around long enough to see that and it's a very positive aspect of all of this."
The mission of the RBI program is to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among underserved youth through instructional and competitive play, while also encouraging them to achieve academically, demonstrate good sportsmanship and contribute positively to the community.
This year more than 850 youngsters in 10 different communities are participating in the Pittsburgh RBI program. That includes Rookie Ball (ages 5-8), Little League (9-12), Pony League (13-14), Colt League (15-16) and Super Colt League (17-18) for boys baseball, and 12-and-under and 15-and-under for girls softball. The communities involved include Braddock, Carnegie, East Hills, Homewood, Hill District, McKeesport, Northview, Shadyside, Swissvale and Wilkinsburg.
The Pirates have supported the RBI program in many ways over the years, including opening the Pirates Community Baseball Center -- which is utilized by more than 1,500 youngsters each year -- in 2007. The facility, which is part of the Shadyside Boys & Girls Club, is designed to assist Pittsburgh RBI youth in developing their baseball and softball fundamentals.
More recently, the Pirates were involved with two events that are also indicative of their desire to assist the RBI program. One was a question-and-answer session with Pirates coaches and baseball operations representatives for RBI athletes and coaches at PNC Park prior to the 7:05 p.m. game against the Chicago Cubs on June 11. The other came three days later when the Pirates' ball girls held an instructional clinic for RBI softball players at Chioda Field in Carnegie.
"We have a reputation nationally for being a good (RBI) organization and the support we receive from the Pirates is like nothing we get anywhere else," Saunders said. "The Q&A was great. The kids asked a lot of different questions. What does it take to be drafted? What does it take to make a major league squad? Who is your favorite player? What's your favorite stadium to play in? It was a great opportunity for the kids -- some of whom had never been to PNC Park before -- and hopefully we can do it again. It was good stuff. It was all positive.
"The softball clinic with the Pirates' ball girls was tremendous too. They got out there with the girls and worked on their skill set. They break it into different stations for base running, hitting, infield, fly balls. They are girls who play collegiately -- either they used to or they still do -- and they gave our kids tips on techniques and how you get your best outcome. They also offered a consistent message about work ethic and discipline and how that will manifest in young lives with sports, grades, home life and things like that. It was a good time had by all."
Another youth baseball initiative that the Pirates support is the Junior Pirates Program. It started 24 years ago as a cooperative effort between Citiparks and the Pirates. Junior Pirates is a fun-through-fundamentals program that introduces kids ages 4-8 to the basics of baseball. Each year 1,500-2,000 youngsters participate at 15-20 different sites for 8-10 weeks.
"We try to start kids off properly with their fundamentals, so you don't have to break them of bad habits when they're nine or 10," said Michelle Aul, the program director for the Citiparks BIG League Sports program. "Our point is to start them off the right way so they can develop good habits. Then they'll pick up on the other things a lot easier. By the time they're seven or eight, if they've been involved with the program, they're ready to move on."
On May 10 this year, Pirates pitcher Tony Watson visited with participants in the Junior Pirates program at Herschel Field in Elliott -- just as teammates such as centerfielder Andrew McCutchen and second baseman Neil Walker have done at other sites in the past.
"Tony came out and worked with just about every kid that was there, and we probably had close to a hundred kids," Aul said. "He was right on the field doing some throwing and catching, and giving them some tips. It was overcast. There was a little bit of mist in the air, but the energy was fantastic. The crowd was really excited.
"Every year it's a different site and a different player. For a site to get the Pirate player visit, they have to show that they're staying with the plan, doing the suggested drills that we've given them and that they have good participation."