For nearly 50 years, beginning in the mid-1940’s, Wyandotte County’s 3&2 baseball complex at 53rd & Parallel was the hotspot for inner-city baseball in Kansas City, KS. Parents and fans alike filled the bleachers and watched some of the best young ballplayers around. Neil Allen, Steve Renko, Ray Sadecki, David Segui—each was an extraordinarily talented KCK kid who played at 3&2 before going on to play in the major leagues. Even Larry Drew, who played NBA basketball and who is now an assistant coach for the Cleveland Cavaliers, played baseball at 3&2.
However, interest in youth baseball in KCK waned in the late 1990’s. In time, the baseball complex began showing its age. The bleachers were ready to collapse. The lights no longer worked. The field was uneven. The inner-city baseball hotspot had become an eyesore and a nuisance.
In 2009, Cle Ross and his not-for-profit: Success Achieved in Future Environments (SAFE) acquired the field.
“When I got ownership of the property back in 2009, my goal was to get the [3&2] field back up to useable status and just to get kids playing,” said Ross.
Born in KCK and raised in Wellington, KS, Ross had been a record-setting collegiate baseball player and, who went on to play professional baseball in the minor leagues. As the Executive Director of SAFE, he started the league in 2009 with just 155 kids.
“We used 3&2 as is,” he said. “We had no running water, no electricity… The field was horrible, but the kids showed up every day.”
In 2010, Ross created KCK RBI and affiliate of the Major League Baseball Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities Program. Currently the MLB’s RBI program has affiliates in 200 communities. The program Ross founded is the only RBI program in Kansas. Teams compete in three divisions: the Junior Boys division (13 to 15 years of age), the Senior Boys division (16 to 18 years of age), and Girls Softball (up to 18 years of age). League schedules run from May through August Teams compete in regional tournaments in order to compete in the RBI World Series.
With funding from MLB, the Kansas City Royals, the Cal Ripken Jr. Foundation, Freightquote, several individuals, absolutely no money from Wyandotte County, the 3&2 complex underwent a $1.4 million renovation. The old 3&2 reopened ahead of the 2016 RBI season as the Barton-Ross baseball complex. It’s a state-of-the-art facility with a synthetic turf baseball field.
Let Our Kids Play
The Barton-Ross complex and the RBI program were welcome additions, but some KCK parents had concerns. Jodie Ruby, a KCK native whose two daughters played softball in the RBI program the last three years (including last year), said that at the close of 2016 Ross announced “he was going to cut the program in half [there had been 1,000 participants] and only allow 500 kids to play [this year].” To make matters worse, she said, he was allowing kids from neighboring Johnson County to play on the KCK teams.
“People [parents of KCK kids] were looking at him like, ‘why are all these other [i.e. Johnson County] kids out here? Why do you have a bunch of kids out here from Johnson County and our kids are sitting the bench?’”
She summed her frustration up with this: If the RBI program is “recruiting kids from Johnson County and other areas, it’s not really an inner-city league.”
Rene Rocha, a father and KCK native whose son was in the RBI program, echoed Ruby’s concern. Rocha had been a staunch supporter of the program until he began seeing hordes of Johnson County kids taking roster spots from KCK kids.
“These [Johnson County] kids were good players and had obviously been playing organized baseball … for a decent amount of time to where they were noticeably better [players] than the kids from Kansas City, Kansas.”
Winning was important to Rocha, but participation was even more important.
Ross had assembled an all-star team comprised of the best young baseball players in KCK, but during a tournament game one fall evening, Rocha noticed that most of the kids on the team were not from KCK. “If we had twelve or thirteen kids on the team, maybe five of them were actually from Kansas City, Kansas. I didn’t think it was fair that Cle was trying to use Johnson County kids to represent Kansas City, Kansas.” Rocha voiced his displeasure to Ross; nothing changed, and Rocha and his son soon left the program.
Everyone is Welcome
When asked about Johnson County kids playing on KCK teams, Ross says, “The field [Barton-Ross complex] isn’t owned by MLB. It’s not owned by the Kansas City Royals. It’s owned by a private, non-profit organization and the non-profit has no obligation whatsoever to provide baseball to any certain group.”
He understands the criticism, though. “I blame myself for that because when I started the league, my mentality was, ‘How many kids can I get back playing?’”
The first year of his program, the KCK kids played in Missouri’s RBI program. When the schedule came out, the KCK parents were not happy—no games were scheduled to be played in Kansas. The next year Ross contacted the MLB and asked if he could start an RBI program in KCK.
“The name was initially ‘KCK RBI’ just to separate ourselves from KCMO RBI,” he said. “In 2015, I went back to major league baseball and asked [if I] could change the name from ‘KCK RBI’ to ‘Kansas RBI’ because there was a misconception that people thought just because the program was called KCK RBI, only KCK kids could participate in it, and that’s not the case. It’s any child.”
Ross stresses that the program’s primary goal is to develop the kids. “If you look at the mission statement from major league baseball for the RBI program, the goal is to use baseball to develop future college and minor league players, to use baseball as a tool to get them educated. It says nothing about creating a recreational player.” He said since KCK already has recreational leagues, his aim is to create KCK’s first competitive league and to align it with the mission of MLB’s RBI program.
Ross wants to emphasize two things. First, he’s staying true to his goal of bringing baseball back to 3&2 instead of chasing money.
“I could turn the field into a rental ballpark. Everybody wants to rent the field; everybody. But I’m not letting anybody rent it.” He said he could make money off of the field, but he prefers to keep it for the kids in Wyandotte County.”
Second, Ross said his plan is similar to that of Kansas City Royals’ General Manager, Dayton Moore.
“I’m going with what Dayton Moore did with the Kansas City Royals. He came in and said ‘I’m going to change the culture, and in eight years, we’re going to win a championship.’ He [Moore] won a championship in seven years instead of eight.
I’m in my seventh year [of the RBI program], and I’ve learned from all of the mistakes I’ve made over those first seven years. Now over the next seven years, I’m going to create the right culture. … But I can assure you: seven years from now, the kids that are in my program and are currently ten, eleven, and twelve [years old], all of those kids—a good portion of those kids—will be playing on college baseball teams if not in college [as students only]. That’s how we’ll be able to know that what we did worked.”