Thursday, May 19, 2011

Stories that Need to be Told- RBI

This little guy showed up for one of the first official RBI clinics. MLB will assist with these clinics, but it takes a village to raise a baseball league.

Matt and another volunteer coach talk strategy at a Reagan High School varsity game.

Major League Baseball footed the bill for this beautifully restored practice/JV field at Reagan. Without the field, Austin might not have been approved as an RBI city.

Throwing heat at the Reagan/Eastside Memorial game

You'll see a few of these signs in the St. Johns neighborhood

Matt signs a baseball at one of the clinics, evidence of how much these kids look up to him.

At the end of the writing class, we had a final project. We were paired with a photographer and given these instructions- "Tell a story." And that was about it. We could tell any kind of story we wanted, in any way we wanted, but we had to keep in mind the elements of story-telling we'd learned in the class.

My partner in crime was Jenny Pinkston- a photographer/first grade teacher with a heart for story-telling and, what I guess would be called "scoop" on some great stories that are being lived out at the Austin Stone. So it was Jenny who first told me about RBI- which stands for "Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities." Jenny knows about RBI because she's friends with the guy who God used to bring RBI to Austin- Matt Price. Jenny set up an interview for me, and I got to ask Matt all about this unique program that's bringing restoration to baseball fields and, more importantly- baseball players. I had a time limit on the story, so there are a few great details that I had to leave out, but I got the gist of it out there in this piece:

I used to think that the New Jerusalem would be nothing but gold streets and crystal seas. I thought there would be buildings everywhere, with gems embedded in their foundations. I imagined that everything would always be shining, light reflecting from the Lamb. But now I'm not so sure. I've started thinking that somewhere inside that golden city, there might be a field. The field won't reflect the light, it will absorb it, and the grass will be as green as spring time. On that field, there might be some boys- some boys most people on the Old Earth thought would never see this city. And those boys will be playing baseball.

I know one person who thinks those boys should play ball in that city. His name is Matt Price, and God gave him something that I do not possess- athletic ability. So much athletic ability that he got to play baseball from the time he was eight years old all the way through college. God gave Matt more than just the ability to play, He gave him a love for the game. That love birthed a desire for a career in baseball. What more could a kid from Corpus Cristi want than to go off to college at Wheaton, play ball for a few years, and come back to an internship with the Round Rock Express? That was the plan, anyway. .

But the following year, with graduation approaching and adult life looming ominously, like thunder clouds threatening a rain-out, Matt connected with the Express manager only to find that the internship he had been counting on was already filled. Without any other plans, Matt planned to work at a summer camp in the Hill Country. But before the camp got started, God provided Matt a job at a bank in Austin. He was able to take the job and still work a couple of weeks at Still Water Sports Camp, where he played baseball with some inner city kids. Then he traded his cleats for loafers and went off to start life in the air conditioned financial kingdom.

But something happened to Matt at Still Water- a new desire had been conceived there- a desire to make an impact. So when a friend alerted him to the needs of Reagan High School's baseball team, Matt was ready to respond. When Matt began to volunteer as a coach, he became familiar with the needs of the team and the brokenness of the community. Reagan High School is in the St. Johns neighborhood. It's a community that has been deteriorating for years as poverty and crime have increased in the area. Thirty-four percent of the community lives beneath the poverty level, and many more people skim just above it. High school drops- outs are common, as are teenage pregnancies, drug use and gang activity. But in the midst of this, there are boys who want to play baseball. And Matt was determined to give them a chance to play.

The first thing that came to Matt's mind was to give players an opportunity to keep playing ball after the spring season ended. He had grown up playing year round and knew that to be competitive, the guys would need a chance to play through the summer. So he and his friends pooled their resources and funded a summer team themselves. They called the team the East Austin Blazers, and they invited kids from Reagan, Eastside Memorial and Lanier High Schools to play that summer.

During the spring, Matt focused on the team and its athletic skills, but that summer, he got to invest more time into the guys lives. There were road trips to games, pool parties, and, at the end of the season, the team celebrated with a trip to see the Rangers play. Matt was building a team that could hit, field and even win- which came as a shock to the Reagan players, who had never won a game. But he was also developing relationships based in trust and transparency. He recruited other coaches to volunteer, and with time, they started a weekly Bible study for the players. Matt even moved into the St. John's neighborhood. He was already much more than a volunteer who dropped by to play catch after a busy day at the office, but now he was a part of the community.

In January 2010, Matt learned about Major League Baseball's RBI program. Its purpose is to revive baseball in inner cities by increasing interest in and support of baseball programs just like Matt's. The Blazers fit the profile almost perfectly, but there was just one problem- they didn't have a field. In order for RBI to take on the Blazers, they would need a field where they could consistently practice, play and host clinics.

Reagan's varsity team played on Nelson Field, but that field is owned by Austin Independent School District. When Matt first began his summer team, he contacted AISD about using the field and they said no. The other options available were to rent a field or use the devastated junior varsity field. Matt had rented a field in the past, but for RBI, they would need a field of their own. The JV field was covered in weeds and thorns, the pitchers “mound” was elevated by only a few more particles of dust than the rest of the field, and there wasn't much grass to speak of. It wasn't the kind of field that would make them eligible for RBI.

But January 2010 was a busy time for baseball in Austin. The Major League Baseball grounds keeper's convention was being held in the city. The conference brings in the League's experts on field maintenance, and as a service to the host city, the grounds keepers select a field in the city to restore. Matt and his team alerted to the opportunity to submit Reagan's JV field for consideration. And, as God would have it, their offer was accepted. A year-long overhaul began, and in February 2011, the field began official use as a part of Major League Baseball's RBI program.

But it wasn't only the field that was overhauled. Matt's life was going through drastic changes, as well. In order to meet the increasing demands of the RBI program, Matt left his job in banking and began to work full-time raising funds and coordinating schedules for the league. He went from a steady paycheck to nothing at all, living off of his savings for three months, while he did the start-up work for RBI. He said he was unwilling to pay himself until the league was on its feet, but I have a feeling that Matt's treasure is stored up in another place all together. Instead of working 9 to 5, Matt's time is spread thin- making phone calls, planning fund-raising events, going from game to game and hosting clinics. The work is difficult, costly and challenging.

But I think that Matt must have long ago come to the realization that I've just come to- that God must be a baseball fan. Because He has displayed His splendor in the new grass in the outfield at Reagan High School, and that splendor is just a shadow of what's to come. So my guess is that Matt is not working as much for games that will be played on the Reagan field, beautiful as it is, as he is toward recruiting a team for another field- where Matt and some boys from St. Johns will play baseball in a shining, eternal city.

So, hopefully, if you made it through all of that, you realize that God put the puzzle pieces together so that His love and redemption could chase some baseball players around their new diamond. This weekend, our missional community got to get a little bit involved with the RBI program by providing snacks and drinks at their first summer clinic.

If you live in the Austin area and you're interested in getting involved with RBI- I believe there is still a need for summer volunteers. You can check it out by going here:

If you're not an "Austinite" you can check and see if RBI is active in your city or, you can just take some time to play ball with a kid this summer or go to a game with your friends or family. Investing in people's lives is what this is all about. Hope you're as inspired as I am to take some time to invest in other people, no matter where you are or how you do it.

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