LITTLE ROCK — With a runner on first base, throw to second on a ground ball. On first when a fly ball is caught, retreat to the bag. Early in elementary school, Baseball 101 was absorbed from older kids in the neighborhood.
In the RBI program, Wayne Gray and other coaches encounter teen-agers who don’t know the basics because they have never played baseball. This afternoon, at a fundraiser for Lamar Porter Field not far from the state Capitol, the coaches will be explaining on the fly to the three or four first-timers on each team.
Those of us old who remember short-handed pick-up games — anything on the wrong side of second was an automatic out and the pitcher doubled as the first baseman — have difficulty comprehending a youngster oblivious to the rules. It happens, I found out years ago.
During batting practice, the left-handed rightfielder on the 10-12-year-old "minor league" team always whiffed. But, in the first game, bat and ball collided somehow and he took off towards me. I was coaching third base. To the hitter, it made sense — right-handed hitters are looking at first and left-handed hitters are peering at third.
Nobody had told him different.
"You come to the first few games, I tell people they will be the ugliest games you ever saw," Gray said. "But by the end of the season, they’ve learned the game and they’re having fun."
In the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, fun is part of the equation. So are life lessons, extracted from Breaking Barriers program honoring Jackie Robinson. Each week at practice, one of nine life-lesson words — maybe determination or courage or teamwork — is the point of emphasis for a few minutes. A low-key thing, it resonates with the players. Eventually, the youngsters talk about how they have used "determination" in their lives.
High in the Lamar Porter grandstand, the word of the week is posted. At the end of the season, all nine will be displayed.
Although some of the players are quite skilled, the baseball is recreational. Everybody gets a turn at bat; a player sitting the bench one inning will be in the field the next.
Only a few sponsors were on board when the RBI program started in Little Rock in 2003 and early in each game somebody passed the hat to pay the umpires. The next year, Gray contacted Susan Elder, daughter of the long-time voice of the Arkansas Travelers, about supporting the program through the Jim Elder Good Sport Fund.
He remembers asking for $300; convinced that her father would have embraced the program, she believes the Good Sport Fund gave 10 times that.
After committing to be the major sponsor of RBI, Susan got a call from John Young, who wanted to know if the Jim Elder Good Sport Fund he found online was the same Jim Elder he had admired while playing for the Travelers.
Yes, she said, and told Young he was her father’s favorite Traveler. She shared that the fund had begun donating to RBI and thought Young would like the program. I founded RBI, Young said, but didn’t know there was a league in Little Rock.
These days, the fund donates $8,000 annually to RBI "which allows us to spend much more time thinking about baseball and working with these kids than going out and raising money all the time," Gray said.
Opened in 1937, Lamar Porter was once the home of the Little Rock Doughboys American Legion team and many others. Now, it is used regularly by RBI teams and a couple of Little Rock high schools.
Hall of Fame third baseman Brooks Robinson, who played for the Doughboys, will be at the field this afternoon. For $10, you get a hot dog, soft drink, Robinson’s autograph, and a front-row seat to teen-agers playing and learning.
Harry King is sports columnist for Stephens Media’s Arkansas News Bureau. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.