Pssssst! Do you want to read a really positive story about kids and baseball?
I know: not what you were expecting, right? Seems like every other day, there’s some hand-wringing claim about baseball’s shrinking influence upon today’s youth. When we talk about baseball, geezers like us might as well be talking about pay telephones, vinyl records and hard candy!
(We might as well be talking about a sports column in a print newspaper!)
Thankfully, they’re not selling that skepticism up in East Harlem, N.Y., where a 25-year-old baseball program called Harlem RBI has been the catalyst for a staggering revival. Here, baseball—the musty, stubborn, still-beloved but disputed National Pastime—has led to an innovative education program and a state-of-the-art charter school, with thousands of lives impacted in both East Harlem and the Bronx, and young boys and girls clamoring to join up.
“The impact they’ve made is just amazing,” said New York Yankees first baseman Mark Teixeira, who’s become a Harlem RBI board member.
I met with one of the Harlem RBI kids the other week. Actually, he’s not a kid anymore: his name is Rob Saltares Jr., and he’s 28. He grew up in the nearby East River Houses, and he began with Harlem RBI (which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, and has early roots with Major League Baseball’s program of the same name) back when he was 10 years old. Saltares’s folks were worried about him hanging out in the local park, and when they told him they’d signed him up for a neighborhood program to play
baseball, he was so excited.
Ha, ha, no he wasn’t.
“I didn’t want to go,” Saltares said, laughing. “I was forced.”
Dragged kicking and screaming?
“Literally. My dad was like, ‘You’re going today.’ And I was like, ‘Nope, I’m sick.’”
It was worse than that. Saltares’s parents had enrolled him in a Harlem RBI camp that combined baseball with a literacy program. Every kid had to spend the morning reading and studying in class before he or she got to play baseball in the afternoon.
“You couldn’t do one without the other,” said Harlem RBI’s longtime executive director, Rich Berlin.
“I was sitting there reading books in the summer, and I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me,’” Saltares said. “But once we got through the morning, we got onto the baseball field.”
This is the part where I am supposed to tell you that Rob Saltares Jr. fell in love with baseball and it changed his life. And in some ways, that is true—he claims he hit a stand-up double in his first at-bat, and he was hooked.
But real life isn’t as tidy as that. Saltares is candid about the fact that his story continued to have ups and downs. He tested his baseball coaches and people who cared about him. There were academic challenges.
There was what Saltares now calls “The Infamous Computer Throwing Incident” in which a computer was tossed from a window, and by some merciful miracle, they didn’t boot him out of the program.
“Real problem with authority,” is how Berlin described Saltares’s early years.
(A disclosure here: Berlin has been a friend of mine since college. We went to the University of Wisconsin at Madison, back when idiots like us could get into the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and we played on a mediocre softball team together).
Baseball didn’t instantly transform Saltares. But it would prove to be a compass. A catcher, he would play in high school, and later on, in college. The game he once resisted stayed in his life. Today, he still plays in an adult league—with players he met as a camper—as he closes in on a degree in exercise science and works as Harlem RBI’s coordinator of baseball and softball.
“I’ve never met a kid who says he didn’t like Rob,” said Justina Sharrock, who grew up in the East River Houses with Saltares and works as a program coordinator at Harlem RBI. “He’s got this way of speaking to them that’s not condescending. He knows where they are at, which is important in this profession.”
There’s a lot of ooey-gooey sentimental stuff that gets said about baseball, but when the people at Harlem RBI talk about it, they refer to a blunter word: failure. Baseball has a lot of failure. It has been said a bazillion times that even the best batters will fail at the plate seven out of 10 times. In turn, the sport rewards patience and perseverance. Those are qualities important for anybody—but especially for at-risk kids facing unfairly low expectations.
“You persist by trying to get a little better,” said Bob Sheehan, the former executive partner of Skadden, Arps and an early Harlem RBI board member. “And you don’t quit.”
It should be emphasized that the end goal at Harlem RBI isn’t cranking out starting catchers for the Yankees (though nobody would mind that, and I suspect both Rich and Rob think they could split a doubleheader.) Rather, the ambition is “Major League Citizens.”
“They give you the tools,” said Saltares’s proud father, Rob Sr.
Today, Harlem RBI seems unrecognizable from its scruffy days on a dusty diamond. They have alliances with star players like Teixeira; the other night, there was a handsome fundraiser hosted by Bob Costas, which honored Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred. The annual budget has swelled from south of $50,000 to north of $26 million, with 1700 boys and girls enrolled across all of the programs. Including the “DREAM” Charter School, which opened in 2008, there are 170 full-time employees, 10 of whom started as kids in the program, like Rob Saltares.
“Nobody knows more about what Harlem RBI should be than them,” said Berlin.
Yes: every once in a while, Saltares runs into a young ballplayer who questions authority and reminds him of a certain 10-year-old from way back when. He said he’s drawn to kids like that. “I’m like, ‘Aw man, you’re just like me. I love it. Let’s chat.’”
A few minutes later, Saltares, Berlin and I take a walk over to a Harlem RBI baseball field a couple blocks away from the school. You can hear the commotion of the city, but when we step inside the gate and look at the well-manicured diamond, it feels like a sanctuary. I know we’re all thinking the same thing, even if no one says it out loud:
What a perfect day for kids to play baseball.
Written by Jason Gay | WSJ