Power Hitters 

Inner-city baseball is vital to the Redbirds' charity status.

This is what is the matter with baseball.

Cypress is playing Douglass in the RBI League, a summer league for inner-city kids 14 and under. The temperature on the Cypress Junior High fields approaches 100 degrees. The Douglass outfielders are standing listlessly in their dark blue caps and shirts as their coach makes a pitching change. The scrubs for both sides are wandering off into the shade of the trees and the water jugs. All the reasons that baseball is dying seem to be apparent -- too little action, too much standing around, too much heat.

Then, just when the game needs a lift, a little-used Cypress player named Osmany Marshall, a fifth-grader at Klondike Elementary School, provides it. He lines a shot into left field that deflects off the fielder's glove and rolls past him. Osmany rounds second, heads for third, and gets the windmill sign to keep going. But the leftfielder makes a perfect throw to the catcher. With coaches and players on both sides screaming, Osmany puts on the brakes and scrambles back toward third. But the Douglass catcher and third baseman know what to do and catch him in a rundown. Three, four, five times they toss the ball back and forth, flawlessly executing a play that even the better high school teams routinely botch. Finally, one of them holds the ball an instant too long and Osmany scoots home safe.

The stragglers are back. The outfielders look alive. The game has been energized by a single play. Under sandlot rules, it's a home run for Osmany Marshall and, for this morning at least, for RBI (Returning Baseball to the Inner-City) baseball.

As the baseball season hits the midway point, the Memphis Redbirds are on pace to set an attendance record at AutoZone Park. The team is losing more than last year on the field but drawing better than any team in the minor leagues. At this pace, some 900,000 tickets will be sold.

Few of those fans will ever see, and many are not even aware of, the RBI program that is a key part of the Redbirds' unique organizational status. RBI and STRIPES, a sports program cosponsored by the Redbirds and the Memphis City Schools, are the cornerstones of a $72 million stadium financing plan. Osmany Marshall and his teammates are, in a special way, as essential to the Redbirds story as founders Dean and Kristi Jernigan.

Special because as nice as it is to see inner-city kids playing organized ball on a summer morning in Memphis, no other city in the country has such an arrangement between sports and charity. The Memphis Redbirds Baseball Foundation is the only nonprofit organization in the U.S. that owns and operates a team and its playing facility. The unusual arrangement drew the attention of the Internal Revenue Service. After an audit, the Redbirds agreed earlier this year to pay the IRS $1.6 million to preserve their tax-exempt financing.

In a different context, the issue of the public or private nature of professional sports facilities came up last week in Chancellor Walter Evans' ruling against the city and county and HOOPS L.P. in the NBA arena deal.

Declining interest in baseball, especially among inner-city youth, is a national phenomenon, if not exactly a national crisis. RBI baseball was around for several years in Memphis and other cities before the Redbirds latched onto it. There are actually two organizations in Memphis that go by the name RBI. The other one, which is for older kids, is called Reviving Baseball in the Inner-City and has no connection with the Redbirds. Apart from these groups, churches, the Memphis Housing Authority, and other organizations promote youth baseball (and other sports) for recreational and competitive teams. The mainstays include Idlewild Presbyterian Church, Bellevue Baptist Church, and Nolen Wilson's Pendleton League at Colonial School, which sponsors leagues and three summer tournaments for all comers, staffed mainly by volunteers.

The RBI baseball program differs from these groups in its marketing power, its financial muscle, and its vital connection to the Redbirds Foundation's tax-exempt purpose of "instituting programs to combat juvenile delinquency." The kids in the RBI program are balancing a lucrative, well-staffed, and sophisticated downtown organization on their narrow shoulders.

Reggie Williams, vice president of community relations for the Redbirds, says the combined budget this year for RBI and Stripes is $300,000 to $400,000. The RBI program, he says, has expanded from six sites in 1998 to 14 this year, with about 60 kids at each site. The Redbirds buy equipment and uniforms and pay four coaches at each site $200 to $300 a week. Kroger donates food and other sponsors have donated books and materials.

One of the Redbirds' slogans is "Baseball is our business but the community is our bottom line." The Redbirds yearbook says "every cent of profit the Redbirds earn goes back into the charitable work of this foundation."

It isn't clear, however, how much the Redbirds Foundation spends on program services compared to other expenses of running the front office, operations, paying off debt on the ballpark, ticket sales, and the Plaza Club (a taxable subsidiary). Because of the unique financing arrangement, most of these things fall under the nonprofit umbrella. And their bills get paid before "profits" go back into inner-city baseball.

The Internal Revenue Service requires public disclosure of expenses and executive salaries, but the Redbirds have not filed a Form 990 since moving from Tim McCarver Stadium to AutoZone Park, where attendance has tripled and revenue has exploded. Chief financial officer Marc Greenburg said the Redbirds requested an extension of time to file their 1999 return, which covers the 2000 season. On their 1998 form, the most recent available, the Redbirds Foundation lists salaries of $2 million (not including players, who are paid by the St. Louis Cardinals, the parent team) and total expenses of $8.9 million for their last year at Tim McCarver.

Williams, a 1978 graduate of Southside High School, played pro baseball for the Los Angeles Dodgers. After retirement in 1991, he was assistant principal at Ridgeway High School and principal at Ridgeway Middle School.

"Back in the Seventies, WDIA had successful leagues in Memphis," he recalls. "The big dropoff in baseball may have come when the NBA got big with Kareem Jabbar, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan."

Baseball won't overtake basketball in popularity, but Williams would love to see such things as a middle school reading and math curriculum based on baseball and inner-city fields with dugouts, fenced-in benches, backstops, neatly cut grass, and carefully lined basepaths.

"It would give the children something to have pride in," he says.

Of course he would also like to see more competitive teams like Fairley High School, which made it to this year's city championship game and has sent several players on to college baseball.

"The RBI program is giving them a chance to play," says Fairley coach James McNeal, who also coaches the Cypress RBI team. "When they get to us in high school, they need to know something. You can see them progress from week to week. And RBI feeds them and gives them reading material too."

The success of the Redbirds can be measured in the standings and at the ticket gate. The success of RBI and the Redbirds Foundation will depend on how many Osmany Marshalls stay involved with the game and stay in school five or six years down the road.

You can e-mail John Branston at branston@memphismagazine.com.

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