In his 10-year major league career, Orioles right-hander Yovani Gallardo has played 261 games in big league ballparks, but his first time came in 2003. He was 17 and still almost a year from being drafted in the second round by the Milwaukee Brewers, which would give him the same experience many more times.
But the first was special.
Gallardo played at Angel Stadium in Anaheim, Calif., and Minute Maid Park in Houston as part of Major League Baseball's RBI World Series, an extension of MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program that began in South Central Los Angeles in 1989 as a way of giving disadvantaged youth an opportunity to play baseball on a national stage.
The program now reaches more than 200 cities and 230,000 athletes, according to MLB, and this weekend Baltimore joins the event as the Orioles RBI team makes its first appearance in the World Series in Cincinnati.
"It's going to teach them to be more like a team as opposed to individuals because everything that you do has to be done together for the most part," coach Bobby Gorsuch said by phone from Cincinnati on Thursday. "You can't have kids straggle throughout here and there. When you go to these events, you go as a team. You come back as a team. It's going to bring them together more."
The Orioles have participated in the RBI organization since its inception. The organization hosts a league during the summer, with the championship games in each division held at Camden Yards. From each league, the winning coach from the previous year and his or her staff select an All-Star team that competes in the regional tournament for a chance to go to the World Series.
Never in the history of the Orioles RBI organization had any team in any league earned that chance. That changed on July 24, when the Orioles junior team (ages 13-15) won the Mid-Atlantic regional championship over the team from Harrisburg, Pa. That punched Gorsuch's team's ticket to Cincinnati, where it will play in the elimination round Sunday.
This year's tournament consists of teams from seven U.S. regions plus the Dominican Republic, bringing together teams from Baltimore; Chicago; Detroit; Houston; Pawtucket, R.I.; Hilo, Hawaii; Atlanta; and Santiago, Dominican Republic.
"Baltimore's a very unique city, so when you step outside of it, not many people are like Baltimore people," said Orioles center fielder Adam Jones, who has been involved with the Baltimore RBI organization. "I think it'll be really good for those kids."
The Orioles team has found the scene in Cincinnati to be unfamiliar. They visited a new ballpark Thursday: the Great American Ball Park, where the Cincinnati Reds beat the St. Louis Cardinals. Dave Parker, a seven-time All-Star and former National League MVP during a 19-year major league career with six teams including the Pittsburgh Pirates and Reds, spoke to the kids at the World Series this past week. According to Gorsuch, his players didn't know Parker, whose career ended in 1991 — before the kids were born.
"They're just not used to it," Gorsuch said. "They want to play baseball, pretty much. They're not used to all the logistics that you have to do, with the work day. So it's pretty eye-opening to them."
The highlight of the week came Saturday morning, when the Orioles team took on the team from Chicago at Great American Ball Park. That, Gorsuch said, is the event his players were talking about all week. When Gallardo played, his regional was in Anaheim before the World Series in Houston.
"Playing at Angel Stadium to qualify for the World Series, and then at Minute Maid for the World Series itself, you can't beat that," Gallardo said. "For me, it's something that I will always remember for the rest of my life, having experienced that and having played there as a teenager."
The week also includes a workout day in front of college scouts (more immediate for the 16- to 18-year-old senior division) and an essay contest.
So it goes beyond baseball, which is positive in the mind of Jones, who helped host a youth baseball clinic through the RBI program last month. Last year, the MLB Players' Association presented Jones with the Marvin Miller Man of the Year award for his dedication to the community, including his work with RBI.
"I think just having these kids on a different stage, different platform, you're gonna have people around, people that you've never seen, different expectations," Jones said. "I think it's gonna help these kids mentally. That's the thing about life — when you're put in situations that you haven't been in before, that's what life's about. It's a different experience for these kids. I'm glad they're having them step outside the city of Baltimore and go to a different city and just be around a whole different culture."
Jones recalled having a similar experience as a kid in travel baseball. Growing up in San Diego, he played with kids from all over California against an unfamiliar team from Texas in a tournament in Florida. It gave him a broad range of perspectives.
"That's how it's supposed to work," Jones said. "These kids are supposed to gain experiences and gain knowledge from different people."
Of course, Jones has been busy with the Orioles, but he did get the chance to address the Baltimore team before it left for Cincinnati on Wednesday.
"I gave them very encouraging words on their way out," Jones said, "and just told them, 'Don't just go represent the team. Go represent yourself. Go represent your family. Go represent your city. And then represent the entire city of Baltimore. Go out there and represent yourself.'"