They come because many of them have nowhere else to go. They come because Mike Holmes takes them in and makes them better, makes them whole. It’s a gift, he says in a soothing voice. Only he isn’t talking about himself.
The gift is the program he runs, one that would have slipped away due to bureaucracy and budget cuts if it hadn’t been for the former Winnipeg Blue Bombers receiver.
Officially, Holmes is the president of Houston RBI. RBI stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities, a community endeavour sponsored in part by Major League Baseball.
To make it work, to give young teenagers a positive outlet so they can pursue their baseball dreams, Holmes does more than oversee a 20-member board. He helps manage the teens on-field. He organizes schedules and trips. He raises money to make sure there are enough uniforms and equipment for everyone to play.
“The City of Houston used to run the program,” Holmes said, while on a recent fundraising venture. “In 2005, the city decided to do away with it. I took it over and I’ve been running it ever since. We’ve put 160 kids through to college. We have nine players in the majors. It’s a lot of fun.”
Three of Holmes’s protégés have played in the All-Star Game: Carl Crawford of the Los Angeles Dodgers, the MVP of the 2009 game; Chris Young of the Oakland Athletics in 2010; Michael Bourn of the Atlanta Braves in 2012.
Bourn was baseball’s top base-stealer in 2011, and is a two-time Gold Glove winner. All three players are outfielders.
“From a baseball perspective, those are the guys I really feel good about,” Holmes said.
So how does a former football player, one who played in three different professional leagues, end up offering baseball-loving teens a safe haven from gangs and drugs?
A native Texan, Holmes loved baseball, played basketball and was offered a football scholarship at Texas Southern University. He went with football for the education and wound up a first-round pick in the 1973 NFL draft (18th overall by the San Francisco 49ers) as a defensive back. After two seasons with the 49ers, he was released and he closed out 1976 with the Miami Dolphins. He given a choice: either hang around and wait for a shot in Miami or play in Winnipeg as a receiver.
He went north and never regretted it.
With the Blue Bombers, Holmes played in an offence that featured fellow receivers Eugene Goodlow, Joe Poplawski and Rick House and quarterback Dieter Brock. In six seasons, Holmes caught 244 passes for 3,752 yards and 33 touchdowns. In 1980, he was a CFL all-star.
“In Winnipeg, the Red River Exhibition would always roll into town during the season, and Mike was intrigued by one of the rides,” former Blue Bombers linebacker Leo Ezerins said.
“In practice, he would yell out during pass patterns: ‘Do you want to go faster?’ It was like he was saying to the defensive backs, ‘Try to catch me.’ Very few did.”
Holmes left Winnipeg for two seasons in the U.S. Football League before working for the City of Houston’s parks and recreation department. He helped administrate Houston RBI, which had been patterned after the original program funded by former major-league player and scout John Young in the South Central region of Los Angeles in the late 1980s.
When Houston city officials said they could no longer operate it. Holmes jumped in for the simplest of reasons: “If you see something good, you want to be a part of it. Growing up, my middle-school and high-school coach said a lot of positive things that kept me on the right path. It’s my turn to assist someone.”
Holmes says 75 per cent of the teens he gets come from broken homes. Many seek a refuge from the violence in their neighbourhood. The boys are divided into two age groups (13 to 15, 16 to 18) while girls 18 and older play fastball. Last year, MLB, the Houston Astros and the city funded the Houston Astros Urban Youth Academy (UYA), a facility where hundreds of kids have learned about attending university on a baseball scholarship.
When the Houston UYA opened, its manager, Daryl Wade, said being able to work with the young players over time would greatly benefit chances of playing elsewhere.
For Holmes, it was a glorious day, almost as good as the August afternoon he celebrated in 2010, when his senior boys’ team travelled to Jupiter, Fla., and won the RBI World Series. It was the first time in 14 trips that Houston won it all.
“James Loney [Boston Red Sox] came from our program. Jason Bourgeois [Kansas City Royals]. Quinten Davis [drafted by the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in 2012],” Holmes says. “It’s like I tell all the kids: ‘Set yourself a goal and don’t stop until you reach that goal.’
“I enjoyed football, but this is what I do. This is who I am. And I love it.”