A Mathews-Dickey coach does all he can to take black kids out to the ballgame.

African-American ballplayers are getting rarer than a triple play.

Thomas Brasuell, vice president of community affairs for Major League Baseball, says the sport is painfully aware of the decline of the pool of black players. But he says MLB is doing all it can to reverse the trend.

Brasuell cites a program called Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities (RBI) as having a positive impact on reigniting interest. "We're giving these kids an opportunity to learn the game," Brasuell says by phone from MLB's New York headquarters. Brasuell points out that Carl Crawford (Devil Rays), Coco Crisp (Red Sox), Luis Matos (Nationals), Jimmy Rollins (Phillies) and Dontrelle Willis (Marlins) are all products of RBI.

Marcus Townsend: "It's all about teaching [kids] something and hoping they'll flourish."
Jennifer Silverberg
Marcus Townsend: "It's all about teaching [kids] something and hoping they'll flourish."

RBI took root in South Central Los Angeles in 1989, the brainchild of former Detroit Tiger John Young. Mathews-Dickey adopted RBI the following year, making St. Louis the second city to embrace the program. In 1991 Major League Baseball took over administration of the program.

Today, Brasuell says, teams in 203 cities worldwide participate, with 125,000 kids age thirteen through eighteen enrolled in the program. Last year MLB contributed $1 million to keep RBI running. Additional funding comes from individual big league teams. The Cardinals, for example, donate $50,000 a year to Mathews-Dickey. Townsend says that money covers the cost of uniforms, equipment and tournament travel. Still, it's a far cry from the tens of millions MLB pours into Latin America.

"Back when RBI first started here, we blossomed to 56 teams," recalls Tom Sullivan, vice president of operations at Mathews-Dickey. "Ozzie and McGee and Eric Davis were heavily involved. We had 1,000 kids playing in the early '90s. Now, we're down to 20 teams and maybe 300 kids."

Sullivan is quick to say that the Cardinals' front office is not to blame, and he's appreciative of the club's efforts in building new baseball diamonds in St. Louis through its Redbird Rookies program. "They've been great," says Sullivan. "We are getting great support from Ted Savage and the Cardinals. It's just that we don't get the support from the professional athletes anymore."

Savage concurs. "In the early years [of RBI], the professional players came in, coached and donated their time. You just don't see that anymore."

Townsend remembers his first year coaching at the Boys & Girls Club. "Seemed like everyone was playing then," he says. "But now, you know, kids aren't going to games. They're not seeing it. For me it's all about teaching them something and hoping they'll flourish. If they make it to the pros, that's great. But it's more important that they become solid citizens."

Last year MLB and RBI presented Townsend with the 2006 Baseball America Youth Coach of the Year Award. At a ceremony in New York, Hall of Famer Cal Ripken said, "Marcus Townsend is more than just a coach for the young people at Mathews-Dickey Girls & Boys Club of St. Louis. He's a mentor, a father figure, a strong hand to help these youngsters go down the right path."

Joyce Jones says that when she delivered the good news to Townsend, his first words were: "'Can this help our Boys Club with our baseball program in any way?' He's one of the most unselfish people there is."

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