This past Sunday in Milwaukee, James McDonald pitching for the Pittsburgh Pirates was in a jam. Having already given up a homerun in the inning, he was facing the Brewers number five hitter, Rickie Weeks, with men on first and second and only one out. The Pirates were clinging to a two-run lead and not trying to fall behind in a road game. Ultimately, McDonald slowed himself down and struck out Weeks and the next batter, Cody Ransom, to get out of the inning.

The Pirates went on to win the game as McDonald struck out eight and held the Brewers to four hits while walking one and giving up just one earned run. That run was the first one he allowed after 13 scoreless innings — the longest scoreless run by a Pirates pitcher this year.

James McDonald is having an outstanding season in 2012. Through 11 starts he is 5-2. His ERA of 2.14 ranks him 2nd in Baseball and his 0.95 WHIP is good enough for 4th. He has become the Pirates ace and has a good shot at making the All-Star team.

McDonald standing on the mound glaring down batters is a reminder that back in the 1970s, as much as 27 percent of Major League Baseball players were Black. That number is now down to 8.8 percent, which is slightly up from 8.5 percent last season, but ironically way down from the 17.5 percent in 1959, the year that the last team finally integrated.

But, McDonald might not even be playing baseball had he not played as a youth for Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.Major League Baseball recognized the declining number of Black players as a problem years ago and started the RBI program, which is geared towards exposing economically disadvantaged youth to the game and increasing the Black talent pool. The main obstacle to city kids playing baseball is the cost of the equipment and the lack of coaches, organizations and decent fields.

RBI started in South Central Los Angeles back in 1989 and then quickly spread to other cities around the U.S. Currently, there are 120,000 kids in 185 cities worldwide taking part in the program.

While the number of Black players in Major League Baseball may imply that the program is not working it actually is. RBI alumni on MLB rosters during the 2011 season included, Carl Crawford (Red Sox), Covelli "Coco" Crisp (Athletics), James Loney (Dodgers), Jimmy Rollins (Phillies), CC Sabathia (Yankees), Yovani Gallardo (Brewers), Justin Upton (Diamondbacks), and of course, James McDonald. All of those players are stars and represent the kind of players that RBI can produce.

The RBI program in the Pittsburgh area is strong and McDonald often works with the organization and does clinics for the kids. He is just looking to help.

“There’s not that many African-Americans in the game, so African-American kids don’t have anybody to look up to or see anybody,” McDonald told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “I feel like any chance I have to give back or show them support, I go and do it. I feel like the more they see and the more they’re around the game, the more you’ll start to see the numbers go up.”

It seems like the numbers are starting to go up already. In Baseball’s Amateur Draft this past Monday, seven of the 31 first-round picks were Black, the most in 20 years according to research by Major League Baseball. Ten of the 28 first-round picks in 1992 were Black. Only one was chosen last year – Joseph Ross, a right-handed pitcher was taken with the 25th pick by the San Diego Padres.

The Black players selected in the first round were:

• Outfielder Byron Buxton (No. 2, Twins)

• Shortstop Addison Russell (No. 11, Athletics)

• Outfielder Courtney Hawkins (No. 13, White Sox)

• Outfielder D.J. Davis (No. 17, Blue Jays)

• Right-handed pitcher Marcus Stroman (No. 22, Blue Jays)

• Outfielder Victor Roache (No. 28, Brewers)

• Outfielder Lewis Brinson (No. 29, Rangers)

Whether or not all of those players came through the RBI program, it is clear that more Black kids are playing baseball around America and that can only be a good thing.