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Published: Sunday, 4/20/2008

Baseball diamond is mentor's office

Former Mud Hen John Young, right, beams as he meets with one of his RBI graduates - Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp. Former Mud Hen John Young, right, beams as he meets with one of his RBI graduates - Red Sox outfielder Coco Crisp.
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In Their Words is a weekly feature in The Blade's sports section. Sports writer John Wagner talked with John Young, the creator of Major League Baseball's RBI program and a former Mud Hen.

John Young had a brief cup of coffee in the major leagues, playing in just two games with Detroit in 1971. But his influence on the sport far outshines his brief career.

Young, who spent two seasons playing for the Mud Hens, developed Major League Baseball's RBI program. The acronym stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, a program in its 20th season.

RBI is designed to bring baseball to inner-city youths ages 13-18 while also increasing their focus on academics, teamwork, and self-esteem. The program has produced major-league talents such as Coco Crisp, Dontrelle Willis, Jimmy Rollins, and Carl Crawford.

Young grew up in South Central Los Angeles in the early 1960s and was such a fine basketball player he received a scholarship offer from the University of Utah. As a senior in high school he filled out the roster of the baseball team and his speed caught the eye of the Cincinnati Reds, who drafted him in the 15th round of the 1967 draft.

Young in 1973 Young in 1973
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Instead he attended Chapman College and focused on baseball. After tearing up the Central Collegiate League, one of the top amateur summer leagues, with a league-best .350 average in 1968, he was picked 16th overall by the Tigers in 1969. He led the Single-A Florida State League with a .325 mark that summer, then was so successful at Double-A Montgomery, Ala., the next two years that Detroit called him up in 1971. Young had two hits in four September at-bats with the Tigers.

But he suffered a wrist injury in spring training of 1972 and played in just 30 games for the Mud Hens, batting .311 before an operation halted his season. He struggled in 1973, hitting .241 in 88 games and began 1974 with Detroit's new Triple-A club in Evansville, Ind., before being traded to St. Louis. The next year he was a player-coach at Double-A Little Rock before becoming a "bird dog" scout for Buck O'Neil of the Cubs. In 1978 he came back to the Tigers as a full-time scout, serving six years in that capacity before scouting for the Padres, Rangers, Marlins, and Cubs again.

Scouting helped alert Young to the lack of baseball opportunities for inner-city youths, and he started the RBI program in his hometown of Los Angeles. The program has grown to serve more than 120,000 boys and girls in 200 cities worldwide, and Young still oversees the program from his L.A. home.

"JIM LEYLAND WAS my first manager in Lakeland in 1969. This was the Deep South, and [segregation] kept me from getting an apartment, so I didn't have a place to live until he let me live with him. Jim was like Crash Davis [from the movie Bull Durham]. He was an old-school player who was a great influence on the younger kids. I knew he would be a good major-league manager because I saw his willingness to learn, and his hunger and thirst for knowledge. He gave his knowledge, but he also commanded respect. When I was in the [Detroit] system there were a lot of Latino players, and I remember how the conditions were difficult for them and they had problems with the language. But Leyland befriended them and tried to understand and help them with their problems. That's why you see how all the players today trust him.

"Toledo was a tough time [in my career]. There was a lot of frustration. My mind-set was to get 60 miles north to Detroit, but they had a championship team in 1968 and no one broke into that starting lineup until it fell apart in '74. I lived in Bowling Green, and I loved it there. I took a couple of classes at BG, and I had some good friends in Fostoria. I think Bowling Green was a fantastic place.

"I eventually got traded to the Cardinals, and I used the lessons I learned from Jim Leyland there. I tried to be a mentor to the young players they had in their system - guys like Garry Templeton and Ken Oberkfell, and Tommy Herr. Those guys ended up being the nucleus of some good teams in St. Louis."

"WHEN I BECAME a scout, one of the first gentlemen I worked for was Buck O'Neil. He was one of the great players in the Negro Leagues, but he wasn't a bitter man even though he had been denied an opportunity to play in the major leagues. He taught me how to carry myself, how to be a professional. He's always been a great ambassador of the game. There were other great scouts like Sam Hairston and Packer Davis, and Ed Scott, and they taught me about baseball and what to do to survive. At first I worked in Louisiana, and at that time there were white scouts who scouted the white schools like LSU and African-American scouts who scouted Grambling and the black schools. Eventually I signed Howard Johnson, and that made me one of the first African-Americans to sign a white player.

"When I became a scout for the expansion Florida Marlins, I worked for Dave Dombrowski, and I was impressed by him. He was so prepared, so organized, and so thorough. He was a hard worker, but he also had a plan. He read every [scout's] report, especially all the details, and he was on top of everything. When we were breaking down every [major-league] player to prepare for the expansion draft, the work consumed 12-15 hours a day. But since we were an expansion team Dave was getting calls, all-day everyday, for jobs, and at lunch he would return all of those calls. He was a stickler for doing all the little things right.

"ONCE I WAS one of the top prospects in Detroit's farm system, and I was very disappointed when I realized I wasn't going to get to Detroit. Now when I look at my legacy, I realize that the most significant thing I could have done was create RBI. Someone eventually would have come up with the ideas behind RBI, but if I had played big-league baseball for 15 years I might not have come up with it. This is a legacy I'm very proud of.

"When I grew up in Los Angeles there were a number of great players who came from L.A. On my Connie Mack team in Compton alone we had George Hendrick, Enos Cabell, Lenny Randle, and Wayne Simpson. Los Angeles was a pipeline to the big league because there was a wealth of talent.

"But when I started scouting I had cities such as Birmingham, New Orleans, Nashville, and Atlanta, and the inner-city programs were inferior. We were losing a lot of talent in the inner cities to football, basketball, gangs, and prison. In 1984, when I became president of the professional baseball scouts organization in Southern California, I suggested we do something meaningful [to address this problem] and sponsor an inner-city tournament. I called Roland Hemond, who worked in the commissioner's office at the time, and he walked it down to the office of the league presidents, Bobby Brown [in the American League] and Bill White [in the National League]. And that's how RBI got started: They gave us the seed money, but no money to sustain it. So my job was to get the money to keep it sustained.

"Originally I wanted the program to be run only in Los Angeles to work out the kinks, but I was on Nightline one night with Henry Aaron and Fay Vincent, and the project just exploded. Major league baseball hired Leonard Coleman, who eventually became National League president, to help fund the program, and it eventually has come to 240 inner cities worldwide.

"The objective of RBI is not to get minorities to the big leagues. The objective is to get more kids to use the lessons they learn in baseball to succeed in life. I didn't want baseball to become so expensive [to play] that it becomes a sport played by the elite only. But RBI isn't only about playing baseball: We have a life-skills program, and we work with a lot of kids in a lot of areas. The goal of the RBI program is to develop big-league citizens, and that's what I'm most proud of."

Contact John Wagner at:

jwagner@theblade.com

or 419-724-6481.



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