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Talent hunt takes to inner cities

Harold Reynolds plans youth tryout camps to supplement MLB efforts

A developmental program called RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) began in Los Angeles in 1989. Run by Major League Baseball, it has spread to 186 cities, including Portland.

Often through Boys & Girls Clubs of America, the RBI program provides coaching, equipment and uniforms in disadvantaged areas for boys ages 13 to 18 (baseball) and girls 10 to 18 (softball). Several thousand youngsters participate annually and can qualify for regionals and an RBI World Series.

While the RBI program has had some success, the number of blacks involved has dropped while Hispanic participation has increased in recent years, says Tom Brasuell, vice president of community affairs for Major League Baseball.

'The biggest reason (for the drop in blacks) is the proliferation of other entertainment activities, such as video games,' Brasuell says. 'I have a young son, and he enjoys baseball. But as soon as his game is over, it's right back to the Game Boy.

'We did a focus study on video games, and No. 1 in popularity was pro wrestling, followed by football. There's a lot of contact and action. One of the biggest sellers is Slugfest, a baseball game that incorporates a lot of wrestling-type slams and stuff.

'Some years ago, a young African-American looked at baseball as his only way out of the inner city. Now that has come half circle, where Latinos look at that as their only means of advancing in society.'

Troy Berry, who played pro baseball and is now the boys basketball coach at Benson High, would argue that the recruiting process needs to start at an earlier age.

'What good is that going to do long-term if those kids didn't play when they were 9, 10, 11?' Berry says. 'It goes back to before high school. It is getting kids interested by the sixth-grade level and teaching fundamentals and making it fun.'

Brasuell has talked with ESPN broadcaster Harold Reynolds, a two-time baseball All-Star, about what can be done to attract black kids to the game. Brasuell says Major League Baseball must consider changing its approach and joining the NBA in marketing through the music industry.

'We are a little more cautious than other sports,' Brasuell says. 'Some of the lyrics in today's music are not the most wholesome, but we are not going to be Pollyannas.

'We would like to incorporate what's popular among the kids and have people of the music industry involved. For instance, Nelly (a St. Louis-based rap star) was at one time a budding baseball player. There are other rap stars who are professed to be big fans of the game. We need to promote rock and jock.'

Reynolds is putting time and money where his mouth is. At the All-Star Game in Chicago today, he will unveil plans for a 'Diamond in the Rough' tour he intends to launch in Los Angeles in September. Next year, he says, he will expand to about 10 cities, including Portland.

'I will head a staff of about 10 former coaches and scouts, including (former OSU coach) Jack Riley and (Portland scout) Dave Roberts,' Reynolds says. 'We will go into the inner city and put together a tryout camp for a nominal charge, so that every kid can participate. We will charge each kid $100 and have scholarships for those who can't afford it.

'Our staff will evaluate each kid's talents and rate them as a prospect Ñ pro, college Division I, D-2 or JC Ñ and give each a letter of recommendation that can be used by any college coach, major league scout, whatever. Or the coaches and scouts can come in and do their own evaluation, if they'd like.

'This eliminates a couple of problems,' Reynolds says. 'If a college has no recruiting budget, well, we have all the kids in one spot.'

Brasuell says the key is providing scholarships or keeping the costs down.

'Harold is going to make sure that no deserving kid gets overlooked,' he says. 'If all things are equal costwise, black kids would regravitate to baseball.'