MINNEAPOLIS -- Five days before Major League Baseball's All-Star Game took center stage in the Twin Cities, Cal Ripken Jr. stood on a field tucked into Northeast Minneapolis, addressing a group of kids from all over the country about the sport that sent him to 19 Midsummer Classics.
"We know sports in general can teach us a lot of things: leadership, teamwork, individual responsibility," said Ripken. "You'll learn all those things. But baseball is more magical, I think, than the other team sports, because if you look around the big leagues, you don't have to be the biggest, you don't have to be the strongest, you don't have to be the fastest. All sizes, all shapes can be successful in baseball."
The Hall of Famer's words were a perfect message for his target audience, a group of 11- and 12-year-old baseball and softball players from across the continent who had traveled to Minnesota to take part in the 2014 Jr. RBI Classic as part of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities Program. The group gathered on Thursday night for the tournament's opening ceremonies, which doubled as a ceremony to honor legendary Minnesota journalist Sid Hartman.
The newly renamed Sid Hartman All-Star Field will become one of the primary fields for the Minnesota Twins' RBI program, but on Thursday night, it was enjoyed by kids from several different RBI programs who were beginning a once-of-a-lifetime week as part of the All-Star festivities. The RBI program is designed to increase participation and interest in baseball and softball among underserved youth and teach the value of academic achievement and teamwork.
The new field is one of five to be renovated as part of this year's All-Star Legacy Projects, an initiative by MLB to funnel money into local charities as part of each year's All-Star Game festivities. This year, more than $8 million will be go back to communities in the Twin Cities, the largest amount for any All-Star Game. The number was achieved due largely to the contributions of Twins owner Jim Pohlad and the Pohlad Family Foundation.
"Jim Pohlad came to us and said, 'How's this legacy funding work? What are the amounts going to be?'" said MLB executive vice president for business Tim Brosnan. "It quickly evolved into, 'What was the highest amount ever?' We had that discussion, and within the blink of an eye, it was, 'We want to have the highest amount come out of Minnesota.'"
The benefits of that funding were clearly visible Thursday night on the pristine field. Prior to its renovation, the field at Northeast Park had been hindered by significant drainage problems and had no irrigation system, dugouts, lights or scoreboard. On Thursday, the grass was a vibrant shade of green, and overlooking the field was a brand new scoreboard bearing Hartman's name.
In the days leading up to the All-Star Game, Minnesota will host the sixth annual Jr. RBI Classic, a friendly tournament that brings together players from places as distant as Saskatoon and Texas. The Minnesota Twins RBI program is in its 21st year and provides opportunities to more than 4,800 youth age 10-18.
"We have had such a relationship, from an RBI perspective, with the Twins," RBI senior director David James said. "Four out of the five [renovated] fields will be used utilized by the Twins RBI Program. We thought it was very fitting in conjunction with the Twins to have the RBI Opening Ceremony here."
In addition to hearing from Ripken, the players got a pep talk from Twins legend Juan Berenguer, heard from Pohlad and Twins president Dave St. Peter, and got to take part in a clinic run by the Cal Ripken Sr. Foundation, which helped direct the renovation of the field.
"The players don't forget where they started," Ripken said. "Many times, they reach out in their own communities and try to help other kids achieve the dream."
The Jr. RBI participants will play games each day leading up to the All-Star Game, participate in a lunch packing program in order to give back to the community, and be part of the All-Star FanFest and Home Run Derby.
As the kids took their boundless energy into Thursday night's clinic, they looked more than ready to tackle the week ahead.
"We talk quite a bit that the purpose of the RBI program is to create major league citizens," James said. "The reality of it is, a small percentage of our kids are going to make it to the Major Leagues. But if they can use RBI as a vehicle to get a scholarship to college, to pursue their dreams, then that's probably the biggest takeaway that we have with the program."
Caitlin Swieca is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.