Urban Invitational puts youth academies center stage

MLB continues mission to grow passion for baseball in inner cities

Urban Invitational puts youth academies center stage

NEW ORLEANS -- Build it up and pass it along. That's the guiding principle of the Urban Invitational, which seeks to grow the passion for baseball among inner-city residents. Major League Baseball has started at the youth level and hopes to carry its momentum to older generations.

The love of sport has always been assumed to come from the top and trickle down, but the search for a younger and more diverse demographic has changed the script. Now, through Urban Youth Academies and the Urban Invitational, MLB hopes to build a youthful audience that will stay for life.

Roger Cador, the baseball coach at Southern University, can appreciate the strategy. Cador's Southern team has been a part of the Urban Invitational every year since its inception and he said that he can see changes coming from the game's outreach effort.

"You have to grow it and then you can spread it," said Cador. "That's what we're trying to do. You grow it at this level, and then you can spread it out and everybody else can take advantage."

The first step in that mission, undoubtedly, was the advent of the Urban Youth Academy. MLB opened a facility in Compton, Calif., in 2006 that provided free baseball instruction and tutoring to inner-city children, and the same formula has since been followed in Houston, New Orleans and Cincinnati.

Nearly 8,000 kids are now regular beneficiaries of the Urban Youth Academy experience, and several have gone on to play in college or professionally. This year's Urban Invitational featured seven kids -- four from Compton and three from New Orleans -- who got their start at an Urban Youth Academy.

"It's surreal," said Grambling State infielder Jaiden France, who started playing at the Compton Urban Youth Academy when he was 12. "The Academy did so much for me. I worked a lot. I lived far away, but whenever I could get there, I got there. It was a lot of fun and I enjoyed it."

Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, could only smile when that kind of anecdote was relayed to him. MLB has put so much time and energy into nurturing inner-city children around the country, and the Urban Invitational gives them a chance to shine on a national stage.

And not only that, the tourney also gives the league a chance to show off its new facilities. Compton has played host to the Urban Invitational multiple times, as has the academy in Houston. Miller said he'd like New Orleans to host again next year before the tournament moves again to a new home.

"We're thrilled to have it here because there are so many hisorically black colleges nearby. But it goes way beyond that," said Miller of the Urban Invitational. "We want to continue to expose the kids to the idea that college is important. We have historically black colleges and we have Division I teams that play in the Urban Invitational, and our next goal is to also do a girls' softball tournament. How will we get that done? ... We're not quite sure, but that will be a really important cog for us. The sky is the limit, and we're only limited by our imagination. We're imagining some big things as we continue to grow."

Grambling State beat Southern University, 6-1, in the first game Friday, and there was a familiar face watching from behind the plate. Former Texas Rangers manager Ron Washington, a New Orleans native, has embraced the academy movement, and he was instrumental in helping the Louisiana facility get built. And Friday, he was happy to shake hands and support the local community.

"I think it's tremendous for both the kids and the universities," said Washington of the Urban Invitational. "They did a great job of construction here and we can bring a lot of schools from all over the south to play baseball. That's the premise of what Major League Baseball is trying to do. We're trying to extend the game and the courtesy out here to the people of Louisiana. ... It's about the youth and giving them hope for tomorrow. Not everybody is going to be a professional, but it's a wonderful game. I see a lot of smiles on kids' faces in this area because they have some place to go and hone their skills."

Miller said he was thrilled at the progress made by the New Orleans youth academy, and he said that more than 1,500 kids are part of the facility's regular programming. Part of that success, he said, is due to Eddie Davis and Dale Brock, the facility's manager and assistant manager, respectively.

Both Brock and Davis are New Orleans natives and both went on to have success as players in college and in the Minor Leagues. Perhaps more importantly, they know people in the community and they know how to boil down baseball instruction so even a 10-year-old can make sense of it.

"We have great leadership. We're very lucky to have Ron Washington around a lot," said Miller. "Eddie Davis and Dale Brock have been unbelievable as leaders. They know everyone, they understand the game and they're great teachers and communicators. They're organized and they run a great program. But the big thing is that the coaches love to send their kids here, which is different than a lot of travel-ball situations. They know our guys are teaching fundamentals the Major League way. It's really encouraging for us, because we're following the recipe and we're really starting to bear fruit."

And the local colleges are taking note. Cador, who has coached at Southern for 30 years and is one of the 20 winningest coaches in the history of college baseball, can see tangible gains. New Orleans has responded, he said, and is quickly becoming a baseball hotbed overflowing with talent.

"In terms of impact, we're starting to recruit more kids out of New Orleans. We saw one kid out of it last year, and we hope to sign many more in the future," said Cador, who recruits natonally and in Puerto Rico. "The future is very bright in New Orleans, and a lot of kids have been able to take advantage of the academy and get better. This is what African-American kids need; they need a place to go and hone their skills. They don't always get the good coaching and the time spent to get better. But now they have someone hands-on that knows what they're doing to help accelerate the growth."

And the word is getting around. Grambling State, based more than 300 miles from New Orleans, has two kids from the local youth academy on its roster, in addition to Compton's France.

James Cooper, the coach at Grambling State, said Friday that he was thrilled to even be part of the tournament, and he said he agreed wholeheartedly with the mission MLB has undertaken.

"We think this tourney does a great job of showcasing historically black colleges and universities to the nation," said Cooper of the Urban Invitational. "We're getting young African-Americans involved in the game, and at the MLB level, the numbers are at an all-time low. This event is great, but we just don't have enough events like it. You never know how many kids you can touch that are watching on TV and thinking, "I want to go to Grambling' or 'I want to go to Southern' or 'I want to go to Alcorn State.' "

And that's exactly the point. The Urban Invitational doesn't just play to its local audience; It plays to a national crowd thanks to its placement on MLB.com and MLB Network. Miller said that has been a huge element in the growth of the academies and in the tourney, a trend he hopes will continue.

So far, he said, MLB has gotten the exact returns it may have ordered. And even with a new Commissioner, the beat goes on. Rob Manfred took over from Bud Selig as Commissioner last month and Miller said the Urban Youth Academy is still at the forefront of the league's ambitions.

"We're happy that the new Commissioner has allowed us to keep the dream alive for a lot of these kids. And what's happening is a lot of these kids are going to historically black colleges," said Miller. "They now see a pathway. If they play baseball, they can go to college, and maybe one day they can play professionally. That pathway wasn't always available or visible 10 years ago. But now it is. And if they don't play pro ball? They can be an architect. They can be a lawyer. They can come back and coach at the academy. We have a workforce of kids that the academy has helped. We have thousands of kids [who] are employable, [who] are part of the solution in America. And that's huge."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.