When RBI is more than a stat
On your scorecard, RBI stands for runs batted in. For the more than 1,600 kids who wore the colors of RBI teams last season in Boston, RBI means Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities, a program initially conceived by John Young, who played a total of two games in the big leagues but has made a lasting impact on the game since he conceived RBI in 1989, with more than two million kids participating since its inception.
Young, an African-American who worked as a scout for Red Sox president Dave Dombrowski when he was with the Marlins, grew up in south-Central L.A., an inner-city neighborhood in which baseball had not yet ceded supremacy to basketball and football. Years ago, Young told me what an event it was when the kids from 103d Street, his neighborhood, played the Murray boys from 108th Avenue, a clan that featured future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, his brothers, cousins and uncles.
“Our heroes were guys like Frank Robinson and Bobby Tolan, Bob Watson and Willie Crawford,“ Young said, rattling off the names of African-American stars of the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Young launched RBI on the streets of South-Central, hoping to rekindle inner-city interest in the game. Now, embraced by Major League Baseball, it is in more than 200 cities worldwide, including Boston, and has produced its share of major league alums, including CC Sabathia, Manny Machado, Justin Upton, Yovani Gallardo, James Loney and Carl Crawford.
“I played RBI,’’ said Red Sox outfielder Chris Young, who grew up in Houston and played a couple of years in the RBI program, the highlight a championship game played on the campus of Texas Christian University in Fort Worth (“a road trip!”). “It was great for me.
“It was another avenue we could play baseball. Luckily I was able to play in different leagues as a kid, but in the RBI program, I was able to play with my friends, who maybe couldn’t afford to play on travel teams. RBI was competitive baseball, but affordable.’’
Young, beginning his 11th season in the big leagues, is at a stage in his career where his greatest value is as a fourth outfielder. But in his rookie season with Arizona in 2007, at age 23, he put up numbers that compare favorably to those of Mookie Betts, last season’s 22-year-old rookie sensation with the Red Sox.
Young in 2007: 29 doubles, 32 home runs, 27 stolen bases, .763 OPS
Betts in 2015: 42 doubles, 18 home runs, 21 stolen bases, .820 OPS
“Reminds me of when I was in Arizona,’’ Young said. “Me and my parents talk about it. It’s cool to see. Mookie is doing it in a much bigger market, and that changes it. When you do it in Boston, that’s special. He deserves a lot of credit.’’
But while RBI has proven to be a springboard for future major leaguers, that is happy coincidence. The reason Mick Blume and Rico Mochizuki and Tyler Petropoulos and Justin Perryman and Lidia Zayas of the Red Sox Foundation are here at Jim Rice Field, along with their close personal friend Wally and the three World Series trophies, has little to do with uncovering star-quality talent, but everything to do with supporting people like Ivelise Rivera and her daughter, Elise.
Ivelise Rivera, commissioner of the RBI softball leagues, and her daughter, Elise Rivera, who has played for almost 10 years, have made RBI a family affair. (Gordon Edes/Red Sox)
Ivelise’s day job is IT Business Analyst for the Boston Centers for Youth and Families. Nights are spent as commissioner of the RBI softball leagues. When she began as a coach, she knew little about a game she had not played as a child. Now she spends virtually every night of the week at one of the dozen or so neighborhood fields where RBI games are played.
Elise, meanwhile, started playing when she was 8. “I told my mom, ‘I hate this sport, I never want to play.’’’ she said. “I couldn’t stop the ball. I didn’t like throwing, didn’t like hitting, didn’t like running.’’
Nearly 10 years later, Elise, who packs an outsized personality into her petite frame, plays high school softball in Lexington and on her RBI team when the high school season ends.
“I love this sport,’’ she said. “I live, breathe, eat and smell the game. It’s really bad.’’
Bad? It’s wonderful. Only a few can play at the same level as a Chris Young. But to love the game like Elise Rivera? That’s what makes us care about RBI.