MLB, Nike RBI launches youth baseball program in Visalia

(Rigo Moran)

Major League Baseball and Nike RBI pitch a youth baseball program in Visalia, program to launch in April

VISALIA – Major League Baseball and Nike RBI are launching a youth baseball program in Visalia that will give underserved kids an opportunity to get specialized training with the goal of creating opportunities that reach beyond simply playing ball.

The program will launch in April with a baseball team forming for area youth 18 years old and younger, and plans on expanding to include a league for special needs children in June and eventually will incorporate a softball league. Executive Director of Central California Nike RBI, JJ Rutherford, told The Sun-Gazette in a telephone interview that Visalia was selected over other options because of the community.

“It is designed to serve kids that don’t have the money to go to travel ball,” Rutherford said. “RBI is about those kids that don’t have that opportunity. The ultimate goal is to see more kids involved in the sport, but also to see more kids from the valley go to college.”

Nike RBI was launched in 1989 as a way to get underprivileged youth in Los Angeles chances to experience baseball and has expanded to more than 200 cities. The program has an international presence. Major League Baseball, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the city of Los Angeles helped jump-start the program in its infancy and remain partners in the program.

“It’s just giving them the tools, giving them better training, giving them all the things they need to succeed, minus the financial challenges they might have to get there,” Rutherford said. “Our personal goal is more kids to college. And the kids that can go pro, they are equipped to get there in a very healthy way, that they aren’t a statistic at the end of the day.”

Rutherford added that the program goes beyond simply producing ballplayers, but aims to help open doors to other chances. He said that many kids in the program may find that they want to be coaches, umpires or sports journalists, but may not have the chance to discover their passion without the opportunity to experience the game.

 “There are a lot of good ballplayers in the Valley that can’t play for the top travel team because they have to work for the family, contribute to the family,” Rutherford said. “We don’t want that to be a hiccup that says the next step of your life might do amazing things for you and your family, but because you couldn’t make a prospect travel tournament or pay for it, that shouldn’t be the thing that keeps you away from your future.”

Rutherford added that he understands the complexity first-hand. His family are citrus farmers in the Central Valley and he grew up working on the farm.

One thing that sets Nike RBI apart from other programs in the area is the involvement of MLB which adds legitimacy to the league and helps young players see they are part of something respectable, Rutherford said.

“When they get to train or play at Rawhide Stadium, at Valley Strong, they get to be part of an MLB program or something sponsored by Nike, it’s like going to the minors,” Rutherford said. “It’s something a little bit different and when you do that, it takes a little bit of pride. Sometimes, it’s just going to be training those kids that may never had an example.”

Rutherford added that part of the process of the program is simply teaching life skills that encourage kids to act respectfully toward others through teaching them what they can and can’t say on the field that can lead to changes in lifestyle.

“That doesn’t happen in five minutes,” Rutherford said. “That comes from investing in them and being committed to who they are going to become rather than who they are.”

Rutherford said that he hopes kids who are involved in the program go on to become “MLB Citizens,” fans of the game, and that the opportunity the program offers may help provide opportunities for young people to discover their dreams.

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