High levels of participation, attendance have organizers leaning toward return to Big Easy
By Spencer Fordin
NEW ORLEANS -- Packed stands, exuberant cheers and high-level baseball.
The ninth annual Urban Invitational played to a thrilling conclusion Sunday afternoon, giving the city of New Orleans a reason to celebrate. The Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans played host to two final games Sunday, wrapping up a three-day weekend tournament that is showing serious signs of growth.
More than 100 kids were involved in the academy's youth events on Saturday, and the tourney's overall attendance could boast of a 20 percent increase from last season. Tony Reagins, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of youth programs, was thrilled with the event's progress.
"We believe it went really well," Reagins said. "The games were really well-attended, especially Saturday with all the activities. We had the clinic early in the day, the Pitch, Hit & Run, the Play Ball event and the doubleheader. It was very positive. And that says something about the teams that are participating. Some of them are upwards of three or four hours away, and the fans are driving in to support their team."
New Orleans has hosted the tournament for three straight years, and this year's tourney saw the field expand from four to six teams. The timing of the Urban Invitational also coincided with the maturation of the academy, which has added a softball field and greater clarity to its developmental programs.
Eddie Davis, the manager of the New Orleans academy, said that the venue has gained experience from hosting the Southwestern Athletic Conference championships each of the last two seasons. Still, Saturday's full day of events was a challenge to pull off from the academy staff's perspective.
"Yesterday was a TV day, and we had activities going on for the kids at the same time. There was a lot of logistics and a lot of planning, but luckily, we have a great staff," said Davis. "We're the only academy without a Major League team, so we don't have the club foundation resources to support us. You have to get creative when you're small. We try to be efficient and try to leverage all our strengths."
The New Orleans academy has finally grown into its own footprint, and Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, said it's provided enthusiasm for the next few seasons. MLB is currently building academies in Dallas, Kansas City and San Francisco, expanding reach to new regions.
The end goal, said Miller, is to have academies representing underserved communities across the country, and ultimately, to change the flagging participation of urban kids in the national pastime. That goal is coming closer to fruition all the time, said Miller, and the finish line is well within sight.
"In our minds, after you've been open for four or five years, you have about 250 kids that are ready to go out and play. That's from studying what we did in Compton and Houston and even here in New Orleans," said Miller. "And when you have 10 academies all with 250 kids, all of a sudden you have critical mass. You have a lot of players that are ready to go out and compete at a higher level. Girls and boys.
"That's when we're going to see the needle turn. About 10 years. We've already seen it happening in the MLB Draft, but you're going to see the landscape change dramatically at the college level. That's the key sustaining ingredient for us to get underserved kids from the United States to the Major Leagues."
That phenomenon was readily apparent on Saturday, when the academy's back fields were packed with kids eager to be involved in the game. The Play Ball event featured baserunning competitions and Wiffle ball games, and later, as the games played on the stadium field, there was another youth event.
The local kids competed in a Pitch, Hit & Run competition -- a first for the Urban Invitational -- and the response seemed to be universally positive. Reagins said it was important to give youngsters a chance to have their own competition while their parents were watching the college players perform.
"There's something about kids running around the bases and swinging the bat, and then seeing the smiles that take over their face," said Reagins of the youth events. "That's really what it's all about, especially with the kids that are just getting introduced to the game. If we can create that type of atmosphere where it's positive and energetic, we can create the desire for the kids to come back again and participate."
New Orleans is considered an ideal location because of its mild weather and deep and rich baseball tradition. It's also home to Southern University and Grambling State, two of the staple teams in the tournament, and Miller said he'd like to come back to the Crescent City again next year.
"Having it here is convenient," he said. "We're thinking about doing it the first week of February next year, and maybe we could do it here before Mardi Gras. That's the thought. At some point, we will move it to another academy. But I think having it in the South, we're at least assured it will be warm. We might move it back to California soon, but right now we're leaning toward coming back here to New Orleans."
The location may still need to be determined, but the tournament's goals are being realized on an annual basis. More and more inner-city kids are getting a chance to connect to baseball from an early age, and Reagins hopes they'll stick with it long enough to effect a demographic sea change.
"I think the takeaway is we want to reach out to create that connection from our program to college baseball," said Reagins. "If we can do that -- along with giving our kids a chance to advance to higher levels in terms of baseball -- that's very positive. We want to create the bridge so that kids in this program have an idea of what the college baseball experience is like and aspire to do that one day."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.