Nashville RBI's footprints felt far and wide

By Paul Hagen / 12/04/12 10:31 PM ET

NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Not all the action at the Winter Meetings takes place at the Opryland Hotel.
At Lipscomb University, which is across town from the annual baseball conclave, Major League Baseball on Tuesday evening put its prestige behind an RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) fundraiser and clinic. The event also honored Nashville RBI founder Reggie Whittemore, who is stepping aside.
"We thought with the Winter Meetings being here, the local program and the local board of directors thought this would be an ideal opportunity to recognize Reggie for his years of his service," said David James, national director of the RBI Program.
"But at the same time, to kind of capitalize on the excitement here at the Winter Meetings. We work very closely with the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation. We do these youth clinics multiple times during the season, so we thought this would be a great opportunity to do one here while we're in Nashville. We're in Nashville, so why not help out?"
Said Whittemore: "I grew up in a neighborhood where we played with anything we could get as far as a bat, and we usually used one ball. If somebody hit a home run, we had to go get that ball or the game would be over with. That was it. I got started in a neighborhood where kids couldn't look forward to playing baseball because of the expenses of the game."
Whittemore got a chance to go to Lipscomb, because "I was a pretty darn good baseball player." He was drafted by the Red Sox and spent seven years in their system, plus one season playing in the Dominican Republic and another in Mexico. When he retired, he came home and became involved in starting the RBI Program in his hometown.
"I wanted to give back something to the community that gave so much to me," he said.
Now the program has between 300-500 children a year. Jo Lyn Hilliard was so impressed with what it did for her son, Jared, that she became a volunteer four years ago.
"An event like this is an opportunity to let the community come and see what we do for the kids," Whittemore said. "Because we're here for these children. And the effect that RBI has on the children is so phenomenal. We keep the kids active. Without our programs, kids can get into things they don't need to be getting into on the streets, joining gangs."
"I've watched these kids grow up. I've seen the pull of the street for them and the consequences of that. So without this program, a lot of these kids have nowhere to go. I've seen grades come up and succeed, because they have the accountability. And the mentors are so important. So this gives us the opportunity to share with the community what we do and give the kids the experience of a lifetime which they wouldn't normally have with Major League Baseball. You can't get much cooler than that."
Jared, who started playing when he was seven, is now on a team of 13-14 year olds.
"I've been a better person, and the program has helped me be a better person in life. I don't know what I would do without it," he said.
Added his mother: "We touch a lot of children ages 5 through 18, and that 13, 14, 15, those are the critical years. And you really have to get these kids involved in something that keeps them positive."
Two years ago, Nashville was hit by a serious flood. After the fundraising portion of the event, more than 100 kids participated in a baseball skills clinic with the help of the Lipscomb University baseball and softball teams.
"Kids are supposed to be out there every day, and we keep them running around those bases. Helping with childhood obesity and things like that, we're doing our share," Whittemore said.
Summed up by James: "It's great if we get players who make it to the Major League level. But at the end of the day, the most important thing we can do is get these kids into school. So having these young men and women here is a step in the right direction."