By Jack Margaros
David James, Major League Baseball (MLB) Vice President of Baseball and Softball Development, reiterated one common phrase throughout his hour-long lecture in the Townhouse Conference Room on Tuesday evening.
“I wasn’t, and never have been, a very good baseball player.”
Coming from a former Little Leaguer who “played the minimum” six defensive outs and grazed the batter’s box once, James can empathize with today’s youth that are overlooked for their lack of abilities to compete with their peers. But he is looking to change that. To make sure everyone has more than enough opportunities to play and develop a passion for the game of baseball
“(MLB) is being really aggressive.”
James directs a multitude of programs set forth by MLB to increase baseball participation among the youth sector, and detailed his work at the 24th annual Weckwerth Lecture on the campus of Springfield College. Programs such as the Play Ball initiative and Restoring Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) have been started partially due to James’ efforts. He’s also helped established ten MLB youth academies in select markets across the country.
“When I hear about some of these programs, I think of kids like me,” James said. “(They) may not necessarily be able to secure a college scholarship, but the game is providing other opportunities for these kids and more importantly providing opportunities to these communities.”
MLB partnered with USA Baseball to create the Play Ball initiative in 2015. Events such as pitch, hit, and run, and the Junior Home Run Derby start as local competitions. The winners advance to a larger pool of competition among their region, and those winners advance to compete for a national championship.
What separates the national championship from the rest is a trip to the MLB All-Star Game to compete — a “once in a lifetime opportunity.”
Among other events, Play Ball directs Fun At-Bat. According to a study done by USA Baseball, tee-ball is actually hurting the game and has caused a decline of youth baseball participation in the past.
There are inexperienced coaches. Kids are afraid to use hard baseballs and get frustrated when there is minimal success using a standard tee.
“[The youth] walk away from the game at 5-6 years old,” James said. “We have to hope that they have a wonderful experience and become lifetime fans. The problem with that is tee-ball has not really evolved over the last 20-30 years.”
Fun At-Bat changes that. USA Baseball partnered with Franklin Sports to create a tee with a larger cup, and replaced the traditional bat and ball with foam or plastic substitutes.
Success is all but guaranteed. Kids are making contact, swirling around the bases and the fielders aren’t afraid to get in front a routine grounder.
With this “new age” tee-ball, USA Baseball collaborated with Shape America, an organization that creates physical education curriculums for school districts. Fun At-Bat has been integrated into several physical education programs, exposing it to over 1 million students.
Springfield is one of countless areas to host a Play Ball event. In addition, all 30 Major League teams are involved with the initiative in some capacity. At the end of each event, children are sent home with their own foam bat and ball to keep.
“We have to take the game to places where we don’t play every day,” James said. “We really want to focus on kids getting in, who currently aren’t playing the game, so we go to a lot of different markets where we know there’s not a lot of participation.”
Play Ball itself has grown baseball immensely. For a second consecutive year, baseball and softball combined to be the most participated team sport in the country in 2017 with over 25.1 million participants.
Causal participation rose by 12.9 percent and overall participation saw a six percent increase. Over the past three years, baseball has seen a 49 percent growth in casual participation.
“When you hit a home run, flip your bat,” James says as he encourages the youth. “Have fun, trot the bases.”
The RBI program was designed for communities who deserve more attention than a couple of Play Ball events. It gives underserved children and underserved communities a cost-free avenue into playing baseball.
“There’s a lot of conversation about the game becoming too expensive. I am a big believer that the game is not expensive. Travel ball is expensive,” James said. “That all came to the detriment of community-based baseball and softball leagues.”
There are over 200 RBI leagues broken into three denominations. There are the leagues sponsored by MLB teams, like the Los Angeles Dodgers RBI league who provides equipment and uniforms to over 12,000 children. It’s a result that positively affects all sides of the spectrum. The children have access to the game. The Dodgers, from a business standpoint, potentially sell more tickets, gear and increase the fanbase.
There are also the RBI leagues that serve under existing organizations, like local parks and recreation departments, Boys and Girls Clubs, school districts. Any RBI league that doesn’t fall under the first two buckets are independent.
“They are underserved as it relates to the opportunity to play baseball. Therefore, if they are not playing, how can they be fans of the game?” James said.
Aside from being the only youth league free of cost for affiliation, RBI leagues run well past the typical Little League calendar season. Players that don’t qualify for the local All-Star team can enter RBI leagues for the summer to stay involved.
“We’ve pushed our seasons later, so that when kids are out of school, they have more opportunities to play,” James said. “If the better kids are playing All-Stars, that’s fine also, but for the kids that aren’t that good, that gives them more opportunities to play, [with] no pressure.”
The ultimate goal for James is to start RBI leagues in every state. Consumers are hungry for more and the data suggests that baseball has already grown at a rate James is pleased to see. What the MLB and him have been able to accomplish in just four years suggests that the future of baseball does not hang in the balance. America’s Pastime is resurging, and Major League Baseball is at the forefront of pushing its product in places that only they can bring it.
Featured photo courtesy Jack Margaros