NEW ORLEANS -- The novelty is wearing off and leaving an institution in its place.
The Urban Invitational, Major League Baseball's bridge to inner-city communities around the country, began its ninth season Friday in front of a rollicking crowd at the local Urban Youth Academy.
The tourney, created to promote and enhance the baseball programs at historically black colleges and universities, was held in New Orleans for the third straight season. The field was expanded to six teams this time around, and Friday's opening games coincided with National College Baseball Day.
Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs, was on hand for Friday's opening games, and he was thrilled by the boisterous atmosphere at Wesley Barrow Stadium. The Urban Invitational is growing, he said, and it's a reflection of the league's desire to appeal to a younger audience.
"It's a connection between the college game and what we're doing in Major League Baseball," said Reagins. "It gives us an opportunity to showcase our academy here in New Orleans, and it also provides a pipeline for young people that go through our academy to participate at the college level. A lot of these teams that are playing in this tourney have kids that have gone through our program. It's exciting."
The University of New Orleans is also hosting games this weekend, but the Urban Youth Academy will feature several youth events as part of the tournament schedule Saturday. In addition to the games, the facility will host an instructional clinic, a Play Ball youth event and a Pitch, Hit & Run competition.
That final event is a first in tourney history, and it represents another link in the Urban Invitational chain. The tourney was designed to both stoke enthusiasm for the game in minority communities and to further enhance the game's diversity at the college level and beyond. Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, is thrilled by the effect the Urban Invitational is having on the ground.
"More of our kids are going to college, and that's the important part," he said. "Some of them are going on to play pro baseball, and that's a big deal. We're seeing that we're making a difference, and we're about four academies away from reaching critical mass. In about 10 years, once we get 10 or 12 academies up and running, we'll see that we've produced a lot of kids that will get an opportunity. They'll follow their predecessors at these schools and we're going to establish even more opportunity."
The Urban Invitational has previously featured the academies in Compton, Calif., and Houston, and Reagins said it works perfectly in conjunction with the league's Play Ball initative. What it does best, he said, is provide a tangible end goal for kids who start dreaming about baseball at 5 or 6 years old.
Everybody can't play professionally, and for some kids, attending college seems out of reach. Reagins said the Urban Invitational serves an important purpose in making college seem attainable for people in inner-city communities, and the teams involved provide role models for the kids in attendance.
"Four of these schools are historically black colleges, and we think that's important because even at the HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities], our game is dwindling away," said Reagins of the Urban Invitational. "Funding is a big component of that. We felt if we could provide a national platform to be on MLB.com or [MLB] Network, these schools can get exposure and show the world that good baseball is being played at these schools."
Southern University came back this year for its ninth appearance in the invitational, and longtime rival Grambling State is also part of the field. The other teams involved are Prairie View A&M, Alcorn State, Lousiana Tech and the University of New Orleans, lending an accent of local flavor.
The New Orleans academy, which opened in 2012, has more than 2,500 active members, and it will host two televised games Saturday for the first time in the facility's existence. In prior seasons, MLB televised games at Louisiana State University and at UNO as part of the Urban Invitational.
"I love the community," said Miller. "There's a lot of people here who are from the South, and it's a rich, historical place to have it. This is actually the first time we had the television broadcast at Pontchartrain Park. Having it at Baton Rouge was such a great beginning, and last year, having it at UNO to honor coach Ron Maestri was really big. Now, we're at the academy, and this is the site where the New Orleans Black Pelicans played. We're back to our roots, and we're connecting the past with the future."
Miller, the driving force in building and enhancing the league's collection of Urban Youth Academies, said he can still recall when the New Orleans facility was just a hope and a dream. Miller wanted to credit three people -- Ron Washington, Ron Maestri and Arnie Fielkow -- with making the academy a reality.
Washington, a New Orleans native and the former manager of the Texas Rangers, has been very generous with his time, said Miller. Maestri, the longtime coach of UNO, was instrumental in supporting the academy and in smoothing the first few years of operation. Fielkow, a local politician, helped grow the academy and started a scholarship for local kids in the name of his father, Jack Fielkow.
With their help -- and with the enthusiastic support of the local community -- the academy is finding its footing sooner than expected. New Orleans has proven to be a fantastic host for the Urban Invitational, and Miller surveyed the capacity crowd Friday night with a sense of admiration and accomplishment.
"There was a lot of praying," Miller joked of the academy's maturation. "I knew if we built it, this would happen. It's the right place at the right time and doing the right thing. This is a talent-rich environment. I knew it would happen, but it's hard to visualize when you're struggling to get it done."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.