For Major League Baseball to revive its popularity with urban kids the game needs ambassadors at the grass roots level who can connect with the next generation of players and fans. In Washington, D.C. the game has connected with its future through two elite teams fueled by community support and MLB’s RBI [Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities] program.
The D.C. Grays, named in honor of the old Negro League Champion Homestead Grays who originally played in the Nation’s Capital, open their sixth season in the Cal Ripken, Jr. Collegiate Baseball League June 7 at the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy at Fort Dupont Park. This season the team of college players from around the country is joined by a youth team hoping to bridge generations of players and stimulate more interest in the game.
“The Grays are ambassadors for baseball in Washington D.C.,” said Antonio Scott, co-founder and general manager of the D.C. Grays. “This organization has brought kids from different backgrounds together and proven they can gel as a team”.
Meanwhile, the team gained immediate credibility once admitted into the Cal Ripken, Jr. Collegiate Baseball League in 2012. The Ripken League is a summer league for college players to develop their skills during their off season. They only use wooden bats as in the Majors and rivals the more established Cape Cod League New.
The Grays promote academic achievement with an aggressive summer outreach program also. The activities include a summer reading program and college access seminars designed to prepare potential student-athletes for college. They also established a partnership with Souza Middle School – across the street from the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy – which allowed them to provide uniforms and equipment the school’s baseball team.
“Hopefully our college players can be the role models for our younger players,” said Barbera. “When they see how the guys carry themselves and see them playing college baseball we hope this will motivate them to work hard in the classroom and on the field”.
The perception that young Black athletes aren’t interested in baseball continues but the interest in playing for The Grays is growing. Their 13-15-year-old team will be comprised of all stars from local teams in other league’s throughout the city. This year there will seven teams under the umbrella of the D.C. Grays including two softball teams for girls.
Burris says that the interest in playing baseball is on the rise but the level of play has to progress in D.C. The Grays baseball and softball clinics have improved the fundamentals skills but the need for consistency in competitive instruction is what will help them get better.
“The 13-15 years are the most crucial time for development,” said Burris. “We want to encourage a sense of understanding the game.”
“Blacks are playing baseball you just have to be Superman to play this game”.
MLB’s RBI program provided the D.C. Grays with a $5,000 grant to help them subsidize the relationship with Souza Middle School. Beyond the financial contribution to the organization RBI serves as an example of what may lie ahead for them. Baltimore Orioles all-star infielder Manny Machado is an alumnus of the program.
As products of HBCU baseball programs Scott and Burris go the extra mile to find quality talent from Black colleges. One third of the collegiate team is comprised of African Americans which is not the case at most HBCUs. They play a 40 game schedule in a 10 team league spread through D.C., Maryland, and Virginia playing a 40 game schedule with playoffs in late July.