Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) youth baseball and softball program operates in all 30 MLB franchise cities. This season the Minnesota Twins, through its Community Fund, is handing out free baseball gloves to all participants ages eight and under in Minneapolis and St. Paul. An estimated 5,000 youth in the Twin Cities play on RBI teams.
As part of the Twins’ Play Ball Weekend, Twins players Miguel Sano and Darin Mastroianni handed out gloves May 22 at North Commons Park in North Minneapolis after their scheduled contest (they lost to Toronto earlier that day). They played catch with the youngsters prior to handing out gloves and signing autographs.
“It’s good to give back to the kids,” Sano told the MSR. He marveled at the park’s neatly laid out artificial turf baseball diamond, complete with outfield fences, scoreboard and dugouts. “We don’t have a field like that” back in his native Dominican Republic, he told us. We admitted to him that the North Commons ballfield is the exception; such manicured fields are usually found in more affluent areas.
We don’t know if Sano was aware that someone got shot on the corner just a couple of blocks away from the field he was so impressed with. The neighborhood of late has been a shooting gallery. Police cars were visible that Sunday evening circling the area — we were unsure whether they were there to protect the visiting baseball players and Twins staffers or the resident youth.
Still, it was peaceful as the two Twins were in the ‘hood.
“This is pretty nice and awesome for these kids,” noted Rick Batsell, whose nine-year-old son Emmanuel received his free glove. The younger Batsell, using his old glove, played catch with Sano and Mastroianni beforehand.
“There’s always a lot of kids at this age playing [baseball],” said Frank White, a Twins RBI official. I asked whether any of these same kids who got new gloves, especially those who were Black, would go to Twins game to see players who look like them. At present Sano is the team’s only player of color.
And more importantly, will these Black kids stick with baseball, or will they eventually treat the sport like an old worn-out glove and move to a new one?
“We always have the younger kids play in Minneapolis and St. Paul, but how to keep them in baseball is the real challenge,” admits White, “how to retain them, because everything they hear about is basketball. [But] everybody is not going to be a big-time basketball player.”
For too many Black youth, and even some Black adults as well, baseball is seen as “the White boy’s sport,” White says. “I think what we really need is adults in the community to buy into baseball.
“I grew up next to Julio Becquer, who played for the Twins back in the ‘60s [1961, 1963],” remembers Batsell. “I grew up seeing all of his friends — Rod Carew, Tony Oliva and gentlemen like that right on 8th and Vincent.”
No Twins players, however, now live in that neighborhood where Batsell grew up and still lives.
For only a few moments two Sunday evenings ago, the Northside kids were “able to shake their hand and play catch with a major league ballplayer,” said Kent Brevik, a Minneapolis Park Board playground specialist who works with the city RBI program. “It’s priceless.”
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Charles Hallman is a contributing reporter and award-winning sports columnist at the Minnesota Spokesman-Recorder.