Vincent Coleman has been compared to Superman. To many of the youth players he’s been in contact with, he’s a superhero whom kids look up to and learn from. Through his love for baseball and teaching, he challenges boys and girls to overcome adversity on the field and translate their lessons into everyday life.
This ability lured him away from his job as a records manager in a New York law firm and into the nonprofit world of Harlem RBI, an affiliate of Major League Baseball’s Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities organization. It also earned him Baseball America’s Youth Coach of the Year award.
Coleman is a strong motivator who makes sure his point is heard and learned. His office is covered with quotes and mottos, such as: “Wins and championships don’t always guarantee you character and ethics in your youth. But you can transform the life of a youth when you make that loss or losing season a powerful and meaningful experience for them.”
He had always loved baseball growing up, and with his playing days behind him, he managed an adult softball league to stick around the game. But his deeper values of respecting the game and strengthening character through it were not getting through to the participants. He began coaching with Harlem’s RBI youth baseball team in 1999.
“I was trying to teach the adults to respect and honor the game,” Coleman said. “But I realized I wasn’t really getting anywhere with them. Maybe this will work with kids better than adults.”
After a couple years as a volunteer, executive director Richard Berlin tried to persuade Coleman to join Harlem RBI full-time. Coleman was reluctant at first, but eventually realized his calling.
Coleman emphasizes the importance of experiences, giving the best effort, respecting others and the game. His players are given experiences that not only allow them to have fun playing baseball or softball, but they can also translate their lessons into real-life situations.
One of the biggest rules at Harlem RBI concerns the word “can’t.” The phrase “I can’t is not spoken here” also hangs in Coleman’s office. Coaches and players know better than to utter the phrase in his company. Mess up, and he marches you right back onto the field and makes you try again. If again unsuccessful, he’ll work with you to find a way to become successful, and not quit until the task is complete.
“It’s important to let the kids know we believe in them,” Coleman said. “They can do anything they want to do as long as they try hard. When a kid tells me, ‘I can’t do this,’ that just kills me.”
So far, the most famous story about Coleman and his presence in the program echoes in the Harlem offices.
Before a recent season, Coleman, Berlin and other coaches gathered to figure out how they were going to divide up a division of 13-15 year olds into three teams. There was concern for the overall experience of the players and Coleman came up with his own idea.
He and Berlin went to lunch to discuss this idea and Coleman would not hear an opinion until he was finished.
“I said to him, I want you to do me a favor and I want you to hear me out,” Coleman said. “For the 13- to 15-year-old group, take the 14- and 15-year-olds and split them up in the division. Give me all the 13-year-old kids.”
Berlin contested, noting that Coleman’s team would lose every game. Coleman didn’t care. He promised he would make the experience worthwhile. After a friendly debate, Berlin gave in and Coleman had his team.
As soon as games began, it was evident that the 13-year-olds were in for a tough road.
Only a couple of the kids had any baseball experience, but Coleman was determined to develop character among the kids and teach the fundamentals of baseball.
They lost all their preseason games and in the first game of the season the mercy rule ended the game—30-0 in the first inning. Still, they drove on and were eventually rewarded. It took a couple of games, but when they scored their first run of the season, they reacted in an unusual way.
“I remember being at the game when it happened,” Berlin said. “It was like 10-0 and they scored a run and they all stormed the field. They looked like they had just won the seventh game of the World Series. The other team was looking at them so incredulously, like, ‘What is the matter with these kids?’”
Coleman’s values, hard work and dedication have circulated through the offices of Harlem RBI and kids frequently return to visit after graduating. Coaches ask for advice and Coleman is always willing to share. He even has taken some of his own.
In January of 2006, Coleman’s mother passed away. He had grown up as an only child in Harlem and was very close to his mother.
“It was a very difficult time for me,” Coleman recalled. “It was a moment where I felt I couldn’t give the kids what they needed.”
After a few months, Coleman was looking for ways to rev himself up for his tasks. Just like he passes on to other kids and coaches, he focused on the positives and learned he had to “practice what you preach.”
It helped pull him out of a rut, as it has with many kids who look to baseball, softball or Harlem RBI to escape the dangers and challenges of everyday life.