In 1995, nearly one in five professional baseball players was African American. Last season, after years of decline, there were fewer than one in 10. As a coach for Seattle’s branch of Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI), a Major League Baseball–sponsored program that targets underprivileged youth, Romell Mitchell is trying to reverse that trend. He’s got another goal, though. A onetime directionless high schooler who joined RBI—now in its 20th year in Seattle—and went on to play in the minor leagues, he has seen how it can give kids purpose. So Mitchell doesn’t just want to change the game. He wants to change lives.
Michael Jordan is the number one killer of baseball among African American youth. And remember, he quit basketball to play baseball. But everyone wanted to play basketball because of him. Everyone wanted to be him.
You know what’s funny? My first love is basketball. But growing up in the Seattle area, I played against some prominent basketball players—guys who’d go on to play in the NBA like Jason Terry and Jamal Crawford—and I realized that I just didn’t quite have the edge that they had. So I started playing Little League when I was 11. I hitched a ride to practice with my friend and enjoyed it. I didn’t even have a mitt.
I didn’t grow up in the most ideal situation. My mom was on drugs, and my dad, I didn’t really know him at all. From what I hear, he’s deceased now. I guess he died eight or nine years ago. So I was raised by my grandma, who did a phenomenal job with me, but I didn’t come from much. I remember one of my best games, playing in church shoes. I didn’t have cleats. I hit a double and a triple, and I was sliding around the field. When I came home my grandma was like, “You played in your nice shoes?” It’s all I had!
I owe everything to RBI. I’m indebted to them for life. The first time I flew in an airplane was because of RBI. I was a sophomore in high school. I played a few games in the program, and they said, “We’re going to Arizona for a tournament. We want you to come with us.” And I’m like, “Arizona? Where’s that?”
You know those turning points in your life? That trip was that moment for me. We were in Peoria, at the Mariners’ spring training facility, and we toured the clubhouse. I remember it to this day. I’d never been around pro ballplayers before. After that trip I had a different mindset. I’d seen it. I’d smelt it. I’d touched it. My new goal was to play professional baseball.
The coaches I had in the program taught us about things beyond sports: how to conduct yourself off the field, learn as much as possible while you’re in school and make sure you take it seriously. I learned a lot of life skills.
Even after I’d left and was playing elsewhere, anytime someone from the program wanted me to come down and talk to the kids, I did. I always helped with practices. It was a no-brainer for me. So I never really left.
Patience is the number one trait you need to be a good coach. These kids are still learning the game, so when a baseball is hit to them they’re like, “Do I throw it to first? Do I throw it to second?” They make a lot of mistakes, so your temperament has to be different. And that’s hard. Sometimes you have to catch yourself and think, Come on, man. They’re only 10 years old.
Our region is blessed economically. Even parents who are low-income can go out and get the bare essentials for their kids. But if a kid doesn’t have a bat or glove, we can get it for them.
You’re going to fail more than you succeed in this game. I tell all of my kids, “In this game .300 hitters are all-stars. There’s nothing else you can do in life at 30 percent and have people be like, ‘You did great!’ Just imagine if you shot 30 percent from the free throw line or you get 30 percent on a test.” This generation is so much about instant gratification, so it’s hard to teach them that. But they have to learn how to deal with those obstacles.
You develop a trust and a bond with your players. I want them to be able to call or text me and say, “Hey, I’m at this party and a fight broke out. What should I do?” Kids think they’re invincible. They don’t think that anything they’re doing right now is going to dictate what happens to them later. So a lot of these kids I deal with, I want to be able to steer them and say, “Hey, you don’t want to go down that path. These are the consequences.” Ultimately, I don’t even care if they play sports as they get older. The key is to get them to college.
Kids don’t act like knuckleheads because they want to be knuckleheads. A lot of it is just a lack of knowledge. They see what’s going on in their environment and they get stuck thinking, Okay, this is how I need to do things, whether those things are good or bad. They don’t realize what’s out there until someone pulls them to the side and shows them.
I know what it takes to succeed in this game but to instill it in someone else, that’s really tough to do. You deal with a lot of kids at this level who haven’t been trained. Their parents just drop them off and have no other involvement. But once it happens to those kids, man, that’s a great thing to see. That’s why I do this.
Published: April 2013