CHICAGO -- The pen went to paper somewhere around 6:30 p.m. CT on Nov. 17 at U.S. Cellular Field's Conference and Learning Center. And with that simple gesture, Lorenzo Elion officially signed his letter of intent to play baseball at the University of Michigan.
Elion was not alone. A record 15 players from the White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE) program took park in this now yearly event, including five from Elion's Chicago high school of Simeon Career Academy, bringing the overall total to 106 scholarships since this remarkable youth baseball idea came to fruition.
And the 18-year-old from Englewood, one of Chicago's toughest, most crime-ridden neighborhoods, serves as a perfect example of what hard work and an opportunity can produce. That particular combination gave Elion freedom.
"Everyone around me was either going to jail or dying. Plenty of my friends died. So I had to do something different, you know?" Elion said. "ACE gave me the opportunity to stay busy, stay occupied, stay off the streets. I took advantage of it."
"He is a great kid from a horrible part of the city," said White Sox director of youth baseball initiatives Kevin Coe. "He is a shining light that something positive can come out of a crime-ridden area. He is going to be very successful in life because he is a natural born leader."
According to Coe, Elion has a chance to contribute immediately in the Big 10 at shortstop for the Wolverines. But it didn't happen overnight. Elion worked hard to develop as a player, Coe said. When he was 11 years old playing on the ACE 13U team, Elion couldn't hit the ball to the outfield grass. And he wasn't very fast, either.
"No matter the struggle, he has always kept that great smile on his face," Coe said.
That positive demeanor -- coupled with great family support and parents who sacrificed so much to keep their kids on the right path -- helped Elion not only grow as a baseball player but as a young man. One living in a community where he didn't always feel comfortable walking the dog, let alone practicing his game outside.
According to the Chicago Tribune crime report, updated from the City of Chicago data portal, there were 66 violent crimes, 110 property crimes and 104 quality-of-life crimes in Englewood in just a one-month window from Oct. 15-Nov. 14 of this year, including three homicides.
According to the report, Englewood was tied for fourth in violent crimes among 77 Chicago community areas during this time. ACE becomes a lifeline for these good kids, who want no part of gangs or trouble.
"No bullet has a name on it," Coe said. "The idiots that are shooting the guns, they are not necessarily marksmen or anything of that nature. A kid might be out on the corner or on the block and hanging out with his buddies on a day off. So we try to keep them as occupied as possible throughout the year so they can avoid those circumstances, and so that we keep them out of harm's way."
"Baseball gave me a way out," Elion said. "It was either you do what they are doing out on the streets and become what they became or you play a sport, take it serious, stay on your books. Give you a reason to stay off the streets, and look at me now. I'm committed and got a scholarship."
Becoming a professional baseball player stands as Elion's career goal, much like any other talented player with a diamond dream at his age. And remember, 16 ACE players have been drafted.
Regardless of that plan, Elion wants to study mechanical engineering. As of this past week, he was simply looking forward to getting to Ann Arbor, doing it not only for himself but for his support system and those friends who never claimed their chance.
"I'm going to stay with it. I don't want to be in jail. I don't want to die. So I just kept going hard," Elion said. "I was hoping a school offered me [a scholarship] that was not too far away, but out of Chicago, where I can just say I made it. I survived out of Englewood.
"ACE helped me do that. I never had time where I was bored and didn't have anything to do. We were always practicing. We always had a game. I've seen good kids just like me go down that [wrong] road. They didn't try to, but that was the only way to go. It was flashy for a minute, and now they spend the rest of their life in jail."