BRADENTON - Twelve lucky baseball players from Bradenton are heading to St. Louis to participate in the nation's first Jr. RBI Classic and the festivities leading up to the 80th All-Star game on July 14 at Busch Stadium.
A send-off dinner at Pirate City on Wednesday night honored the hard work of the team of 11- and 12-year-old ballplayers. The team earned the honor by finishing in first place in the inaugural season of the Jr. RBI program in Bradenton. Major League Baseball is footing the bill for airfare, lodging and food for the 12 players and their three coaches.
"We don't have to worry about anything," said manager-select Al Cox.
Cox, who has been coaching baseball for more than 10 years, said the team will be participating in a friendly tournament consisting of four games.
"There's not going to be a champion picked, but it gives the kids an opportunity to play against kids from other cities," he said.
At the dinner, the players were each presented with a personalized Pirates duffel bag with their name sewn onto the side. The bag held a Pirates hat, Matt Capps jersey, Pirates blanket and official Major League baseball to serve as a canvas for autographs.
On Monday the team will be at Busch Stadium all day, Cox said.
"One of the big things the kids are looking forward to is the workout day where they actually get to see all of the players on the field," he said. "There may be an opportunity for us to go out on the field and meet some of them."
The players and coaches will also have the opportunity to attend the MLB All-Star Fan Fest and will get a special viewing of the Home-Run Derby at the Omni-Max Theater at the St. Louis Science Center.
The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program is celebrating its 20th year of providing an organized league and equipment for inner-city youths. In 2009, the Jr. RBI program was established to target kids ages 6-12. Bradenton was selected as one of the 16 pilot cities for the program.
The team will return Tuesday morning, and will not get to see the game.
James Thomas III, one of the players selected, said his favorite baseball player is B.J. Upton. He said he is looking forward to the event.
"I'm excited about all of it," he said.
His father, James Thomas Jr., was selected as one of the coaches to attend the event.
"This shows that Major League Baseball is interested in these kids," he said.
The elder Thomas said the RBI program provides a positive framework for kids and also creates a stronger sense of community.
"They practiced together, they worked out together and they're all from the same neighborhood," he said. "This is a community team here."
He said three main rules provided the framework for a successful season for these 12 athletes.
"Our number one rule is to have fun," he said. "Number two is sportsmanship. We wanted them to learn how to treat each other and the other players with respect. The third rule is grades. Once we get all three of those set, they're not just going to be good ballplayers; they're going to be good citizens."