Cardinals second-rounder Ronnie Williams isn't the first to be selected in Major League Baseball's First-Year Player Draft out of MLB's Reviving Baseball in the Inner Cities program. In fact, he was one of 13 RBI kids drafted in June.
But Williams is just the second program participant selected by the Cardinals since RBI's inception in 1989, and he's also the first player to come out of the league sponsored by the Marlins, against whom the Cardinals began a three-game set on Friday.
Williams, the 68th overall pick, is a right-handed pitcher from Miami. He spent all of high school playing in the Marlins RBI league and participated in three RBI All-Star Games as well as two World Series.
The 18-year-old graduated from American Senior High School in Hialeah, Fla., where he helped his team to its first ever state championship with a senior season in which he posted an 8-2 record and a 0.97 ERA while whiffing 72 batters in 65 innings (11 games).
Williams hadn't always planned to play sports professionally. He played baseball and football just to have fun when he was younger. But his first experience at RBI's All-Star Game when he was 15 years old persuaded him otherwise.
"It was like we were professionals," Williams said about the way RBI participants were treated. "They dressed us up in a uniform, we ate breakfast, got up in the morning and worked out like the pros. It was a good experience."
His father, Ron, has been involved in the RBI program, on and off, since the organization cropped up in 1989. In fact, he said his older brother helped start the league in South Florida, so he spent a lot of his summers coaching alongside him when he was off from school.
When the elder Williams returned permanently to Miami in 1996, he reinvested himself in RBI, eventually forming his own team once Ronnie Jr. was older. He watched as the program evolved and started to give an increasing amount of South Florida children the opportunity to play baseball or softball. Unlike other summer baseball leagues, RBI is sponsored by MLB and its 30 teams. It was also developed to provide disadvantaged youth the opportunity to play, so it's more affordable than typical summer travel/showcase teams.
Even then, it's not limited in scope, as children from any demographic are welcome to join an RBI league.
"When I was coming up, we played American Legion and we always had somewhere to play," the elder Williams said. "The service in the league is definitely there for the kids to play and give them exposure, let them play baseball in the summer."
Despite his family's ties to the program, the Cardinals' second-rounder played on travel teams before transferring into RBI. Once there, he found that he enjoyed baseball more than he'd originally thought. It helped, too, that the talent he encountered was always good.
"Those kids were different," Williams said. "They just wanted to play to have fun. It kept a lot of my teammates out of trouble and gave them something to do instead of being in the streets."
He even got the opportunity to play at Roger Dean Stadium in Jupiter, Fla., which is where he now toes the rubber for the Gulf Coast League Cardinals. In a pair of three-inning starts since reportedly signing at slot value ($833,900) within a week of the 2014 Draft, Williams has allowed four runs (two earned) on six hits.
Williams was one out of approximately 450 boys and girls currently served by Miami's RBI program. At a broader level, more than 260,000 kids participate in RBI programs in 200 cities worldwide.
The first RBI player the Cardinals drafted was current A's outfielder Coco Crisp from the Los Angeles RBI program in 1999. In 26 years, Major League clubs have drafted over 200 RBI alumni.
Maria Torres is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.