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Program Keeping City Kids’ Hopes Alive : Youth baseball: Anaheim Stadium plays host to championship games of the RBI World Series.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

John Young took in the scene Thursday at Anaheim Stadium, where survivors from a 16-team tournament were playing a championship game on a perfectly manicured field with umpires at each base, a public address announcer bellowing from above, an electronic scoreboard flashing in right field and ushers in the bleachers.

And to think, only 11 players showed up for Young’s first RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner-City) program tryout in South Central Los Angeles five years ago.

“To see a World Series with all these cities and kids involved is so gratifying,” said Young, a Florida Marlin scout who lives in Irvine. “I remember the first year I was just trying to get Major League Baseball to buy into this idea.”

Major League Baseball did, providing financial support for Young’s venture. So did the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Assn., which provides RBI programs with grants for the purchase of new equipment. Individual teams, such as the Dodgers, Angels and St. Louis Cardinals, got involved.

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And what started as a local program for kids in South Central Los Angeles has grown to a nationwide effort, with 10,000 players from 40 cities and a season-ending World Series.

Some 320 players from 10 U.S. cities, the Czech Republic and Puerto Rico were in Orange County this week for the RBI World Series, which ended with Thursday’s championship games in Anaheim Stadium.

While major league players were gearing up for a strike, Puerto Rico was busy beating Los Angeles, 5-0, for the junior division (age 13-15) title, after which players celebrated by spraying shaving cream at each other. Puerto Rico, whose RBI program was launched by Roberto Clemente Jr., also won the senior division (age 16-17) title, defeating Atlanta, 6-0.

“The irony is that 10 years ago most of the guys going on strike (today) were at this level,” Young said. “You see both ends of the spectrum. There are so many kids out here enjoying the game, and the level they want to get to is having all these business problems. It makes no sense at all.”

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Preliminary games in the RBI tournament were played Sunday through Wednesday at Cal State Fullerton, Fullerton College, El Dorado High School in Placentia and Hart Park in Orange. National League President Leonard Coleman attended several games, and Angel Manager Marcel Lachemann and pitcher Joe Grahe helped conduct a clinic Tuesday, but players got a real taste of the big leagues--minus labor disputes--on Thursday.

“Most of the parks we play at don’t even have pitching mounds,” said Barry Thomas, coach of the Los Angeles team. “Most kids never get a chance to play in a place like this. It means a lot.”

Said Avante Rose, Los Angeles’ 15-year-old third baseman: “This was a dream come true. I’ll always remember hearing my name called out on the public-address system.”

If not for Young, who grew up in South Central Los Angeles, played baseball at Chapman College and spent nine years in the minor leagues, Rose and his teammates might have never experienced Thursday’s thrills.

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Noticing a decline in the number of skilled baseball players coming out of Los Angeles during the early 1980s, Young visited urban schools to find out why so many seem to quit playing baseball in their early teens.

There were the expected culprits--a lack of organization in local leagues, poor funding, poor playing fields, the lure of street gangs. But Young also noticed an attitude shift among youngsters, who seemed to idolize basketball stars such as Michael Jordan a lot more than baseball stars.

“A lot of kids thought baseball was boring, and many were surprised that baseball scholarships were even available,” Young said. “What happened was everyone wanted to be like Mike. When I grew up, I looked up to Willie Mays, Willie McCovey, Hank Aaron. Every team had a superstar African-American player.”

Young launched his program to revive baseball in South Central Los Angeles in 1989 and, despite the small initial turnout, he secured 180 players that first year. RBI expanded to St. Louis in 1990 and Kansas City and New York in 1992. Numerous cities were added in 1993, and the first RBI World Series was held last summer at Busch Stadium in St. Louis.

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Young, with the help of a grant from the Autry Foundation, also incorporated an educational component in the Los Angeles program, with players receiving individual tutoring and Scholastic Aptitude Test preparation courses at Santa Monica College. Many players have gone on to play in college or the minor leagues.

“He sold it to Major League Baseball as a scouting program to get everyone involved,” said Darrell Miller, the Angels’ special assignment scout and RBI tournament director. “But it’s really an education program. Our goal is to get blacks and Latinos into college and get them educated so they grow up to be good people.”

Barry Thomas Jr., a 15-year-old second baseman and son of the Los Angeles coach, cringes when he thinks about what he’d be doing if he wasn’t playing baseball all summer. His team plays three days a week and practices on three others.

“Friends in gangs try to get you to do crazy stuff, and if it wasn’t for this I’d be getting into trouble,” he said. “This helps keep me off the street and away from gang-banging. It also builds my confidence.”

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Said the elder Thomas, who works for the Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Dept. and lives in South Central: “We have gangs and drugs, so the main thing is to keep them interested in baseball. We have to give them something to look forward to, because some of these guys have the potential to be someone.”


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