published Sunday, May 12th, 2013

RBI League offers Chattanooga's inner city youths chance at baseball

Coach Kerry Hinton slaps hands with his 5- and 6-year-old team Saturday.
Coach Kerry Hinton slaps hands with his 5- and 6-year-old team Saturday.
Photo by Angela Lewis.

Youth baseball tastes like Gatorade after an at-bat. It smells like dirt, freshly raked. It looks like children in too-big helmets, bobbing heads atop skinny bodies, like waist-high astronauts with aluminum Easton bats in their hands.

But more than anything else, youth baseball is a collective sound of screams, from gruff coaches, from competitive mothers, from 6-year-old shortstops, like the ones crouched in anticipation at the East Lake Community Center.

Heyyyyyy batter, batter! ... Watch the ball! ... Hit the ball! ... Get the ball! ... Heyyyyyy batter, batter! ... Get ready! ... Get your hands right! ... Get your elbow up! Good job, baby!

Angela Putman stood next to the East Lake Dodgers bench Saturday morning. She and a couple other mothers waited by the 5- and 6-year-old players, plopped helmets on their heads and sent them to the plate when it was their turn.

In the fourth inning, with the Dodgers trailing the Avondale Royals 8-1, Putman sent her own son to the plate. Tennessee Putman, 5, has never hit in a game. He has never even played a sport before.

"Come on, Tennessee!" Angela Putman yelled.

She signed her son up for the Chattanooga RBI League after seeing it advertised at the East Lake Community Center, and teams played their first games of the season Saturday. The league is free for participants and designed to bring an expensive sport to families that otherwise wouldn't consider it.

Major League Baseball launched RBI -- "Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities" -- in 1989. Here in Chattanooga, the Youth and Family Development Department has partnered with RBI for three years. MLB contributes money for hats and team T-shirts, a small amount of city funds covers the cost of umpires, and volunteers coach the players.

The regular season will run through mid-June. If a team is good enough, it will go to a regional competition, and then maybe the RBI World Series. In the last two years, local teams have flown to tournaments in St. Louis and Phoenix.

Participation has grown each year by word of mouth, said program coordinator Montrell Besley. Local officials expect more than 1,000 children to play from a dozen community centers this summer.

Besley grew up in Alton Park, playing ball through the Boys & Girls Club. His 5-year-old, Sean, is playing this year with the Southside Phillies. Besley said the league isn't just about teaching children to play baseball; it's about surrounding them with mentors.

At 9:30 a.m. Saturday, as other teams lined up for the opening ceremonies, Derek Choice arrived with seven boys. They were late, he said later, because he had trouble coordinating transportation for his 7- and 8-year-old players.

Some parents drove, and Choice paid a taxi driver to bring the rest.

Choice, a school patrol officer at Brown Academy, will coach any sport. He has coached youth basketball teams. He has coached high school football. If his son wants to play soccer, Choice said, he'll be there, whistle dangling below his neck.

Sports are important, he said. Sports keep kids busy. Choice fears that even the 8-year-old players might otherwise get recruited "to do some stuff they shouldn't be doing."

Not everyone feels the same. Many of Choice's players have quit.

"Some parents don't have time," he said. "Some parents don't make their kids play. Some parents just don't care."

Angela Putman isn't one of them. She bought Tennessee a bat and a glove after registering him to play. When she gets home from her job as a telemarketer with Convergys, she pitches to her son, who will start kindergarten in the fall.

On Saturday morning, he whiffed on the first two swings of his career.

"He knows how to stand," his mom said. "It's just ... his first year. That's it."

With two strikes, Tennessee swung again. This time, he connected. The ball rolled about 10 feet toward third base.

"Run, Tennessee!" Putman yelled, over and over.

Tennessee was safe at first, but he would not reach second. The next batter also hit a ground ball that stayed in the infield, and Tennessee was out at second. Some parents cheered for their own children, and coaches yelled about staying focused.

On the bench, Putman told her boy to run faster, to try harder.

Contact Tyler Jett at tjett@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6476.

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