Last week’s snowstorm may have caught some like an unexpected curveball, but despite Pittsburgh’s unpredictable weather, baseball season is already underway. Just ask Brian Jacobson, 48.
Since Feb. 1, the Squirrel Hill resident has overseen Pittsburgh’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (R.B.I.) Program. The local enterprise, which is part of a national endeavor to create opportunities for underserved youth, is largely supported by Major League Baseball and Pirates Charities but run through the Boys & Girls Club of Western PA, explained Jacobson, R.B.I.’s program coordinator.
The community minded project has a whole roster of efforts, including delivering games, training and necessary items for participants. While those 12 and under are able to play in an in-house R.B.I. league, the program will cover registration expenses for older players to compete in alternative settings.
Maintenance equipment and clinics, access to Pirates games and support for coaches are also available; and, said Jacobson, “we make sure that all participating adults are sufficiently cleared with all background checks and required clearances that satisfy both Major League Baseball requirements and the Boys & Girls Club of Western PA requirements.”
Pittsburgh R.B.I. works with “upward of 800” area individuals, “but I’d like to see us grow that,” said Jacobson. And although the program has established itself in the Homewood, Wilkinsburg, East Hills, Duquesne, Clairton, Braddock and McKeesport communities, there is room to expand. “I’d like to see a 20 percent growth year after year.”
While many may agree with Jacobson’s desire to increase exposure to America’s pastime, such obstacles as money and time have long blocked the base-path.
“Baseball has become a sport where it’s become very expensive,” said Jacobson.
In 2017, Time reported that youth athletics is now a $15 billion dollar business.
A related example appeared in an “ABC News” story last year in which a father of a 14-year-old estimated that in supporting his son’s love of the game, the costs could climb “over $10,000 a year.”
Though citing significantly lower figures, Chuck May, a local little league coach whose son plays on an 8 and under traveling team, estimated expenses at “around $500 for league fees and equipment.”
Akiva Sutofsky, whose son plays on a 12 and under traveling team, echoed those numbers, and said that registration alone could be approximately $350.
Seemingly gone are the days of kids aimlessly taking to dusty fields with friends or filling the streets with broom swinging bombers, imagining themselves as big leaguers.
Between gaining access to “top training facilities,” a private club or AAU programs, which promise increased attention from professional scouts or college coaches, baseball has become an “almost pay to play structure,” said Jacobson. Couple that with scheduling conflicts from other activities and a waning image of the sport begins to show.
“A lot of these communities have a pretty strong tradition in youth football, so it’s a challenge because a lot of the practices and the strength and conditioning programs are happening earlier and earlier in the season where there happens to be some overlap,” Jacobson explained.
Over the past decade, online recruiting services and club teams have created a niche market for able payers. The promise of high profile exposure generated by showcase workouts, premier tournaments or even online profiles — complete with personalized metrics ranging from pitching and bat speeds to 60-yard dash times — has become a reality of today’s game, he said. R.B.I. helps equalize the economics.
By facilitating “very similar style tournaments” or creating teams that “will actually travel to tournaments where a lot of these private clubs play, we’ll be able to receive the same types of exposure that these other teams receive,” said Jacobson.
This July, R.B.I. is hosting its regional tournament in Detroit, drawing teams from Cincinnati, Pittsburgh and New York. R.B.I. and Major League Baseball are “100 percent” covering travel, lodging, uniforms and all other expenses, said Jacobson.
While tournaments, leagues and myriad avenues of support are among the benefits of R.B.I., so too is its use of the Pirates Community Baseball Center. Housed at the Shadyside Boys & Girls Club, the space — which was converted from a “dilapidated indoor swimming pool” in 2007 — boasts batting cages, automatic pitching machines, multimedia training rooms and storage facilities.
For Jacobson, promoting the game is a mission that recalls his own childhood.
“We had a very strong inner city league growing up in Stanton Heights,” he explained. “We played teams in Lawrenceville, 9th Ward, 10th Ward; the Hill District had a great team, Homewood had a strong team, Hazelwood, Carrick.” Restoring a higher quality inner city game is “kind of what I want to bring it back to.
“I’ve built some meaningful relationships,” he added. “I’ve learned what it means to be a good teammate, what it means to be a good sportsman, throughout the game of baseball. Those are the lessons, not just how to play the sport.” PJC
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.