NEW ORLEANS -- Youth took center stage at the Urban Invitational on Saturday, as Major League Baseball held several events designed to benefit the next generation of potential players.
First, the local Urban Youth Academy staged an instructional clinic for about 30 kids early in the morning, and former big league manager Jerry Manuel was on hand to provide his perspective. After that, the academy staged a Play Ball event and a Pitch, Hit & Run competition for the local populace.
All of those events were just an appetizer for the Urban Invitational, which featured three games at two venues on Saturday afternoon. Tony Reagins, the league's senior vice president of youth programs, said it was important to have a wide palette of events that appeal to youngsters.
"We have all kinds of things going on," said Reagins on Friday. "We have a clinic in the morning and we have the Play Ball event going on, which we think is going to be fun. And we have the Pitch, Hit & Run competition, which is a first for us.
"We're excited about it. We wanted to create a buzz around this event. We really wanted to engage kids, so that if they want to come out, we have some options for them to participate. They can participate in the events or just by watching a good college baseball game."
The instructional clinic started at 9 a.m., and it allowed the local kids to get some flavor for how professional drills are done. The college players from Southern University and Louisiana Tech assisted the children as they ran through their paces in fielding drills, baserunning and in batting practice.
Manuel, who played 96 games in parts of five big league seasons before ultimately serving as manager for the White Sox and Mets, took in the proceedings and seemed to enjoy himself. Manuel had come to New Orleans just to be a part of the Urban Invitational, and he was thrilled to see how the event took shape. The ex-skipper said he was impressed by the work done by academy manager Eddie Davis and his hard-working staff.
"This is huge. You have to applaud the people that are here every day," said Manuel. "Eddie Davis and the staff here do a fantastic job. Ron Washington comes out here a lot, and you can see from the drills they do at the clinic that he's doing the same thing he does with the big guys.
"You know they're getting the right fundamentals, which is really key. For me to be a part of it -- with the declining numbers [of African-American players] we have in Major League Baseball -- is huge. We've got to do everything we can to get these kids to enjoy and participate in the game. Once they see the beauty of this game, I think things will turn around for us."
The second youth event was part of the Play Ball initative, and it broke out the kids to three stations around the sprawling Urban Youth Academy complex. One segment was a shuttle run, and another was a game-type situation with wiffle balls, and the third was preparatory hitting drills.
Reagins said that Play Ball -- MLB's effort to enhance the youth game in conjunction with the United States Conference of Mayors -- will grow even more this season. More than 100 cities joined in for the first Play Ball Month last August, and Reagins wants to build the event year-by-year and state-by-state.
"Play Ball is definitely going to grow," he said. "We're going to have some big events centered around Play Ball Weekend in May, and then Play Ball Summer, which we're working with the Conference of Mayors for again."
"Last year, we had great participation, and we expect that to grow bigger this year. There's a buzz about what we're doing with the Play Ball initiative. A lot of groups are getting even more excited -- whether it be the Conference of Mayors or Minor League Baseball. If we can continue to generate that type of excitement in our programming, we can start making a dent in participation numbers."
Lee Smith, one of the game's legendary relievers, was on hand for the Play Ball event, and he took turns firing Wiffle balls for the kids to hit. Smith, a native of Jamestown, La., has previously worked with the Fergie Jenkins Foundation, and the former career saves leader said he loved interacting with the children on Saturday.
"I went out there and faced them with a Wiffle ball," said Smith. "I was talking a little smack, telling them I was going to throw them a couple curveballs. And you see them get the edge and want to hit the ball."
Smith, a seven-time All-Star who stands third on the game's all-time saves chart (478), said that he's opened a gymnasium in his hometown to give back to kids. He also said he's known Reagins and Manuel and MLB executive Darrell Miller for decades, and he said they all have one thing in common.
"I think the good Lord finds people that he knows are going to help people," Smith said. "Darrell Miller and Tony, I've known them all my life. Those guys have always been that type of person. And Jerry Manuel, I played with him. ... Jerry has always been one of those guys, wanting to teach. I mean, we were teammates and he was trying to teach me. That's just the type of person that he is.
"But with these academies, it's just great to see Major League Baseball giving something back to youth baseball, because there's a lot of great athletes that are slipping through the cracks."
Manuel had spent some time tossing Wiffle balls on Friday morning, and he relished the chance to give back. He said that in his childhood, baseball was one of the most popular games, and you didn't have to encourage kids to get out on the field. But today's situation is different, he said, because the most advanced rungs of amateur baseball have become too expensive for most kids to participate.
That's where the academies come in -- to make the game available to a wider segment of society.
"If you find a passion for it, you'll find a way to have some success at it," Manuel said. "For the most part, the economics of the Little League game are tough. Now, travel ball is such a big business, and travel ball is plucking the elite players, and it misses out on the guys who could possibly develop late to be a good player. Maybe they don't have the success right away, but they build a passion for it.
"It's huge to have these academies and these types of facilities available for kids of all economic backgrounds."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.