Major League Baseball, Phillies bring UYA to East Coast for first time
By Spencer Fordin
PHILADELPHIA -- The Urban Youth Academy movement is maturing and simultaneously bearing new fruit.
Major League Baseball and the Philadelphia Phillies opened the latest Urban Youth Academy on Thursday, expanding the league's revolutionary project to all sectors of the country. The first UYA was opened in California in 2006, and the next three were placed in the South and Midwest. Philadelphia represents the first time the Urban Youth Academy concept has come to the East Coast, and it's a market that may be perfectly suited to take the next step.
The Phillies already boast one of the league's most active RBI programs, which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. More than 8,000 kids are involved in the RBI leagues administered by the Phillies, and that number may increase exponentially after the academy gains some momentum.
The new facility, situated in Franklin Delano Roosevelt Park, boasts two baseball fields and two softball fields. If you look down the left-field line on the stadium field -- which can seat as many as 450 people -- you can see the distant towers of Liberty Place, a skyscraper complex in downtown Philadelphia. And if you look down the right-field line, you can see the structure of Lincoln Financial Field, the home of the National Football League's Philadelphia Eagles.
The community turned out in force to see the Urban Youth Academy open Thursday, but there's still pieces of the project that need to be finished. The Phillies are also building an indoor facility at the existing Marian Anderson Recreation Center. Philadelphia is the first multi-site facility among the Urban Youth Academies, and the new structure -- which is expected to be completed by November -- will feature 7,500 square feet of room for a baseball and softball training center.
The Phillies and MLB were aided in the construction process by the city of Philadelphia, the state of Pennsylvania and the Baseball Tomorrow Fund. Ashburn Field, which is adjacent to the new academy field, received some minor alterations in the form of enhanced dugouts and a new playing surface.
"The city has been a spectacular partner from Day One in this effort. It's been a long effort," said David Montgomery, chairman of the Phillies. "We're very proud as an organization that we have 8,000 young people that participate in the RBI program at this point, and we're proud we're one of the largest and most active RBI programs in Major League Baseball. ... We're so fortunate. We have so many people that want to play our game here in this area."
The Urban Youth Academy, first built in 2006, aims to provide free baseball instruction and tutoring to inner-city children, and it also provides vocational training to kids who want to stay in the game without actually playing it. The lives of more than 20,000 children have been touched by the four existing academies, and like the others, Philadelphia's facility will provide free educational support in the form of preparation and tutoring for standardized tests.
The facility in Compton, Calif., was the first to crop up, and it was followed by similar projects in Houston, New Orleans and Cincinnati.
Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president for youth programs, said Thursday that he was excited to see the Philadelphia academy open, and he lauded the city for seeing the construction process through to the end. Now, he said, the academies have a presence on both sides of the country.
"That's part of the overall vision," said Reagins of growing the academy concept. "We want to be accessible to young people in all communities and all areas. To be on the East Coast -- as well as on the West Coast and in the Midwest -- is important. Now, we just need to kind of add to that."
Major League Baseball announced Thursday that it plans on building another Urban Youth Academy in San Francisco, but that project is probably a few years away from reaching fruition. And on this day, that potential academy took a back seat to the brand new one in Philadelphia.
The Phillies helped open the field in style, welcoming three of the greatest players in franchise history to the park. Dick Allen, a seven-time All-Star who won both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player Awards during his career, was on hand Thursday. So was Gary Matthews, former Rookie of the Year and MVP of the 1983 National League Championship Series, and current Philadelphia first baseman Ryan Howard, the 2006 NL MVP.
Allen, who hit 351 home runs over 15 years in the Majors, was thrilled to be part of the Philadelphia story.
"Very much so," said Allen of how proud he was to be part of the academy unveiling. "And to be a part of this city. I'd really love to see the black people of our city take advantage of this where we come out and participate and play with mommas and daddies and starting them young."
"Once you get that kid testifying, 'Hey, I made it through this program,' that's when you have a number of kids following through," added Matthews, who works as a local broadcaster. "To tell you the truth, this field would be good for some Major Leaguers. I can't remember the fields in the Minor Leagues being as nice as this field at all. I think it just gives you that much more added incentive when you come out and you see a plush field like this that you're able to play on."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.