HOUSTON -- When Frank Robinson talks, smart people listen. Major League Baseball gave back to the community Saturday morning, when Robinson -- one of the game's all-time great players and pioneers -- hosted a free clinic for Houston-area children at the local Urban Youth Academy.
Robinson, MLB's executive vice president of baseball development, was in Houston for the Urban Invitational, the league's annual tourney for historically black colleges and universities. But on Saturday, his main task was talking to the next generation of players.
"This facility is here for you to take advantage of," said Robinson to the kids. "The instructors are here to help you, not hurt you. If they say something to you that doesn't fit what you might think it should be, remember they've been around a lot longer than you have. And they know what's going on."
The kids learned that first-hand earlier, when they congregated on the field and learned about the game at several different stations. Players from each of the four schools in the tourney -- Prairie View A&M, Southern University, Texas Southern and Alabama State -- were on hand to lend their expertise.
All of the kids in attendance were invited through their local RBI leagues, and some players couldn't make it Saturday because they had games. RBI, which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, is a huge part of baseball's grassroots effort to reach out to young children in urban areas.
And if the players needed any extra motivation on Saturday, they got it in the knowledge that Robinson would be in attendance. Robinson, the only man to win Most Valuable Player in both leagues and the first African-American manager, gave the kids counsel on life in and around the game.
Robinson stressed the importance of education, hard work and persistence, and he told the kids that they have to be willing to improve in all areas. If you can hit the fastball, he said, learn to hit the curve. And if you can't hit the fastball? Then, said Robinson, you may as well just get a job.
"Is everybody the same ability here? No," said Robinson. "Don't feel bad about that. You just have to learn each day and continue to work on your shortcomings. Don't always work on your strengths. If you're a good hitter, work on your fielding. If you're a good fielder, work on your hitting. Don't always work on your strengths, because if you have weaknesses, they're going to show up in the game."
Robinson told the children that MLB is proud to make the investment it takes to educate them, and he said the league eventually plans to have an Urban Youth Academy in every big league city.
And as he said it, the backdrop couldn't have presented a better case. The Urban Youth Academy in Houston used to be a barren grassland, but now it's a state-of-the-art baseball facility that boasts several outdoor fields and an indoor area to play in when the weather takes a turn for the worse.
Daryl Wade, the manager of the Houston academy, said he grew up minutes away from the facility, and he said he's been thrilled with the progress it's made in the last three years. And more importantly, he said that the academy mission will really take off as more and more kids get exposed to it.
"We've got a great day," said Wade. "We got a few kids out here, but we didn't get the numbers we wanted because it rained all week and a lot of these schools and teams were making up games today. We're not able to get all the kids out here that we expected, but it's a great day. I'm glad those kids are getting an opportunity to play somewhere, and the kids out here are getting a lot of instruction."
Indeed, the smaller-than-expected turnout allowed each player to get more individualized instruction. There were stations set up for tutorials on hitting, baserunning and fielding, and groups of players cycled through each of them over the course of the two-hour instructional clinic.
Former big leaguers Lorenzo Gray and Bobby Tolan were among the instructors, and so was Roberto Clemente Jr., son of the iconic Hall of Fame outfielder. Tolan even teased one of the players who was leaving early. "Apply this stuff today," he said. "You've got to get on base, though."
Clemente Jr., a former broadcaster who grew up around the game, said that he was thrilled to be a part of the clinic on Saturday and happy to help inspire the youngsters toward a better future. Baseball can give them the world, he said, by exposing them to education and culture hand-in-hand.
"It's always great to be able to work with young people and being able to give them advice. Sound advice," he said. "Frank touched on some topics that they need to hear, and not from the parents. From guys like Frank and some of the guys that are here today. It's very important for them to be able to hear that and to be able to understand the magnitude of baseball and of education. Education, obviously, is the foundation of who we are as a people. Baseball is part of our lives, but education will stay with you forever. No one can take that away from you, but baseball can be done in an instant."
The clinic took up two hours of the morning, and it served as the appetizer for the rest of the day's action. Two games -- one between Southern and Alabama State and the other featuring local favorites Texas Southern and Prairie View A&M -- were scheduled for the afternoon at Minute Maid Park.
But the interaction with the kids -- the players and scholars of tomorrow -- meshed perfectly with the void that the Urban Invitational and the Urban Youth Academies were designed to fill. These kids need mentoring and they need constructive goals, and they can find both at their local academy.
Robinson, who stands ninth on the all-time home run chart (586), came back to that theme time and again in his five-minute address to the players. Many of them listened, completely focused on the man and his message, as he told them that the instructors want only the best for them.
"They will work with you as long as you want to work," he said. "As long as you put the effort in, they'll work with you. But as soon as you slack off, they're going to cut you loose because there are other kids that want to take up their time and make themselves better. You should always want to make yourself better. When you think you know everything about this game, you should get out of it. Because you never know enough about this game. I've been in it almost 60 years now and I'm still learning."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.