Major League Baseball (MLB) Vice President of Baseball and Softball Development, David James, reiterated one common phrase several times 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 touched 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.
“Baseball is being really aggressive…and making sure everyone has opportunities to play,” James said.
Stepping away from the game at 14 years old, James had plans to pursue sports broadcasting. Although, an opportunity to work for MLB soon shifted his plans.
Now, James oversees and directs a multitude of programs set forth by MLB to increase baseball participation among the youth sector. He detailed the league’s efforts at the 24th annual Weckwerth Lecture.
“I would not have missed this for the world,” Megan McGloin said, a sport management student who attended the event. “Even though the Patriots’ parade was today, I had to stay here and come to it, because our professors wouldn’t have set it up for us if they didn’t think it was important.”
He has been an integral part of the MLB implementing programs such as the Play Ball initiative, Restoring Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), as well as establishing 10 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. “Again, [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.
“It gives regular kids and fans, regardless of their ability, a once in a lifetime opportunity,” James said.
Among other events, Play Ball directs is Fun At-Bat. The past decline of baseball participation is partially due to tee-ball. USA Baseball researched and came to the conclusion that tee-ball hurts the game – whether it be from inexperienced coaching to the danger of using hard baseballs, and the frustration of not succeeding with a regular-sized 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.”
To combat this, USA Baseball partnered with Franklin Sports to create a tee with a larger cup, and the players use foam or plastic balls and bats for a revised version of traditional tee-ball.
“What that does is that it guarantees success for these kids,” James said. “They are swinging the bat, making contact, they’re running. The kids that are playing the field, there’s a ball that they’re not scared of and they can catch.”
With this new idea, 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. Have fun, trot the bases,” James said.
For communities who deserve more attention, that is where RBI comes in. For underserved children and underserved communities, this program gives children and young adults 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. First, there are the leagues sponsored by MLB teams. For example, the Dodgers RBI league provides equipment and uniforms to over 12,000 children.
“As a result of the access for these kids, as a result of the access to the brand, they are more apt to consume Dodgers baseball.”
This “good business” results in potentially increasing fan gear sales and ticket sales among other positive outcomes from a business standpoint. By wearing the Dodgers RBI uniform, the players are prone to buying Dodgers MLB apparel and prone to convincing their parents to attend games.
The second bucket of RBI are those leagues that serve under existing organizations, like parks and recreation departments, Boys and Girls Clubs, and even school districts. Lastly, anyone can start their own independent RBI league with sufficient funds.
“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. For the players that do not make the local All-Star teams, they can enter an RBI league for the summer.
“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.”
Going forward, James is looking to achieve the prospect of featuring a Play Ball event in all 50 states. There is a large hunger for more, but the numbers suggest that baseball has already grown at a rate James is excited to see.
“You could tell that [David] was so excited to be here,” McGloin said. “We have a great alumni network, but when you don’t have people in certain positions, like with Major League Baseball specifically, it’s important for us to reach out and bring them here.”
What James and MLB have been able to accomplish with these initiatives in just over four years of existence has been, from a student’s perspective, something they long for when they dip their feet in the professional field.
“Personally, I want to work in community outreach and community relations and social responsibility. So [this message] kind of falls perfectly,” McGloin said.
Photo courtesy Jack Margaros