ORLANDO, Fla. -- A little more than 17 miles away from the current center of the baseball universe, Cleveland Westbrook stood and stretched on the grass of Orel Hershiser Field, getting loose and eagerly anticipating one of the biggest moments of his young life.
Westbrook, a 17-year-old pitcher from Miami, made his way north Tuesday to the The First Academy's Payne Stewart Athletic Complex for the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) Scouting Showcase. Westbrook, his Miami Marlins RBI teammates and his fellow RBI players from Bradenton, Fla., Kissimmee, Fla., and Tampa, Fla., were about to run, hit, field and throw in front of five members of the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau.
"This means a lot to me; it gives me the chance to show off what I've been learning for so long and to see if it really pays off at the end," Westbrook said. "Hopefully I get written down and somebody will like me."
That was the hope for Westbrook and everyone else who took part in the second-ever Scouting Showcase, which is designed to give kids from underserved and urban communities the chance to be recognized on a field not far from baseball's annual Winter Meetings -- a chance they might not have been given without the RBI program.
"It's a really unique opportunity to get kids out in front of the scouts to be identified, hopefully show up on the radar of college or pro scouts," said David James, MLB RBI's executive director. "Having the Winter Meetings here and having the head of the Scouting Bureau here running the event, it's a really neat opportunity for these kids to be seen and to show up on the radar.
"We've got all of these people in town, and it goes to the Commissioner's efforts to try to increase the pipeline of African-American kids under certain communities. The reality is that a lot of these kids from these RBI leagues, they have the talent but they can't afford to pay for the showcases and things like that and the travel. If we can bring the event to them, or a relatively close place for the RBI league directors to be able to bring these kids out, we can get them noticed."
The first RBI Scouting Showcase, for players age 14 to 18, took place in St. Louis before Game 3 of the World Series. As was the case then, Tuesday night's event was preceded by a youth RBI clinic in which about 100 kids from ages 9 to 13 ran through various pitching, baserunning, hitting and fielding drills and stations.
"That's great," James said. "Hopefully this experience will get some of these kids to say, 'You know what, I want to play RBI. I want to continue playing baseball.'"
It worked for Westbrook, who said he had been playing the game since he was a 4- or 5-year-old hitting off a tee. Now a pitcher throwing in the mid-80s, Westbrook made the bus ride to Orlando -- a trip of 3 1/2 hours -- Tuesday afternoon with three of his teammates and Juan Garciga, the Marlins' RBI program director and a former participant in the program.
"I want to play in the Major Leagues," Westbrook said, "so I can support my family, make my mom proud, all my coaches proud and make myself proud to know that all my work has paid off."
Garciga noted how important the exposure could be for his four players, especially seniors like Westbrook who have the ability to play at the next level, whether in Division I or even for a junior college.
"For them being out here and having a chance to be seen before their high school season starts, maybe somebody wants to follow them or get their name and see how they're doing during their high school season," Garciga said. "The impact is huge."
That is why James hopes to do more of these clinics and showcases, spreading them across the country to give even more kids in the RBI program a shot to take another step toward their dreams. The next step, he said, is to get something similar started for softball players.
"We've got to do some things to make sure we give the girls this type of opportunity, get the college scouts out and let them identify some of our girls who have the ability to go on and play at the next level and get an education as a result of it," James said.