MLB.com Columnist

Richard Justice

Astros' Urban Youth Academy works wonders

Program provides essential tools for baseball and beyond

Astros' Urban Youth Academy works wonders

HOUSTON -- It's not only about those six young people and their college scholarships. It's about what they represent.

"Our program works," said Daryl Wade, director of the Houston Astros' Urban Youth Academy (UYA).

That's the larger lesson.

On Wednesday, the Astros held a ceremony to honor five boys and one girl who signed letters of intent to play college baseball and college softball.

In all, 21 kids touched by the academy have earned college baseball scholarships, and one right-handed pitcher, Pablo Salazar, was selected by the Cardinals in the 11th round of the 2015 Draft.

Six years ago, the Astros opened the academy in a neighborhood a few miles north of Minute Maid Park, with a mission to get kids involved in baseball and softball. It allowed them to learn and play the game, and helped them understand that there might be a career in baseball apart from playing. It was coaching and mentoring, too, and becoming a neighborhood destination, a place for kids to gather and receive assistance with classwork.

In short, it was to do some good.

This was the idea when baseball opened its first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., in 2006. Since then, academies have opened in another five cities -- Cincinnati, Houston, New Orleans, Washington and Philadelphia.

Together, they serve more than 20,000 kids through tournaments and programs. More academies are under construction in Arlington, San Francisco and Kansas City. (The Giants had the splashiest announcement, with President Barack Obama revealing plans for a San Francisco academy when the team visited the White House last summer.)

More than 100 UYA alumni have been drafted, and more than 500 have played collegiate baseball. Seven players from the Compton academy played in the Majors the past two seasons.

But the impact has been far beyond those elite players. More than 10,500 young men and women are involved annually in academy programs, which include tutoring, SAT prep courses and math and science programs.

During the holiday season, academies have sponsored Thanksgiving turkey giveaways, holiday toy drives and anti-gang programs, impacting almost 100,000 people.

So a program driven by baseball is about more than ... baseball.

"Our academy is not about preparing kids to play professionally, although there'll be some kids good enough to do that," Wade said.

Wade played college baseball at Paul Quinn College, and he believes the lessons learned there have served as a blueprint for everything that followed in his life, including during his 20-plus years as athletics director of the Houston Independent School District.

"I learned the impact of one coach who cared about you, and a bunch of teammates who looked out for each other," Wade said. "You can find positive role models and good influences in people your own age."

Wade estimates more than 2,500 young people a year are involved in some of the games, clinics, camps or other activities.

"It's teaching them how to play and how to be part of a team," Wade said. "It's helping them with their school work. You just never know what an hour a day of tutoring might be doing to help a kid along. We've had kids get football scholarships. They were part of our program, too."

Beyond that, there's the idea of simply giving kids another option, not just while they're in school, but after.

"Being from this community, it's important to me," Wade said.

"I know what Major League Baseball is trying to do to get kids from the inner city involved," he said. "I didn't always have the opportunity to play. I didn't have a Little League program in my neighborhood, and the closest one wouldn't let me play because I wasn't from that district. That hit me hard. That's where my friends were. I'll never forget that.

"I knew kids with ability who never got a chance. We're diverse. We're open. We want kids from all over the city. We just want them to enjoy this game and be fans of baseball and these Astros."

One constant lesson is that baseball isn't just about playing -- there are careers in broadcasting, scouting, administration and more.

"I can't say enough about our ownership with the Astros," Wade said, referring to team owner Jim Crane and team president Reid Ryan. "They keep our kids involved in everything. Our kids go to games, go up and see the baseball operations and how the ballpark entertainment is done. We're very fortunate.

"We want kids to understand that baseball has opportunities far beyond the playing field. These kids have a chance to land internships in broadcasting or ticket sales or baseball operations.

"Look at me. I didn't play in the Major Leagues, but I'm working in Major League Baseball. I grew up thinking the only way to be in baseball was to play for my Houston Astros. Baseball has lots of other opportunities."

Richard Justice is a columnist for MLB.com. Read his blog, Justice4U. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.