Urban Youth Academy a beacon in LA

Urban Academy a beacon

COMPTON, Calif. -- Major League Baseball's first Urban Youth Academy on the campus of Compton Community College has been up and running for more than a year, and on Saturday the facility was decked out in its finest.

And now, according to the architect of this glistening jewel 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, there may be three more around the country breaking ground within the next few years -- Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and the Miami area.

"We're not through," Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball operations told MLB.com. "Right now on the drawing board we have three of these. A couple of them are further along than others. I think we'll make an announcement for at least one of these this year, announce the date for the groundbreaking. I hope we get two of them. Now that we've got the first one, the prototype if you will, here, I don't think it's going be as hard the next time to get to the finishing point."

Saturday was set aside for clinics attended by local children as part of Sunday's celebration at Dodger Stadium, marking the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson reintegrating big-league baseball. But the concept of the game he helped propel forward stretching out nationally into the inner cities would certainly make the late Brooklyn Dodgers Hall of Famer proud.

"I think this is great," said Sharon Robinson, Jackie's daughter, who was making her first visit to Compton on Saturday.

Her sentiments have been shared by many since the complex, complete with its four fields, plus extensive clubhouse and learning facilities -- opened on Feb. 28, 2006 -- on what used to be an underdeveloped 10-acre swatch of community college land.

Dodgers Marlon Anderson and Juan Pierre helped conduct the clinics, and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, plus former Dodgers Lou Johnson, Don Newcombe, Rudy Law and Ken Landreaux, were also all on hand to give chats and assistance.

"This is outstanding," said Frank Robinson, who became the first African-American to manage in the big leagues when he was signed by Cleveland in 1975 and is now an MLB consultant. "Everything is first class. It gives these kids a chance to show their skills, work on their skills and learn the game of baseball. Hopefully this all encourages these kids to play the game at some point."

The Academy was the brainchild of Solomon and went forward with the blessings of Commissioner Bud Selig. At the cost of $10 million, it is seed money for reinvigorating the baseball spirit of young African-Americans. At the time of Robinson's death in 1972, African-Americans made up about 20 percent of Major League rosters.

Now it has plummeted to 8 percent. The reasons that define that figure were debated at length during a panel discussion last month in Memphis, Tenn., a day before the first Civil Rights Game.

But Solomon said on Saturday that places like the Academy will be a big help in developing MLB-caliber players. So far, two have been signed by Major League teams. Lyndon Pool was signed by the Dodgers based on his performance in a one-day tryout camp, and Cardoza Tucker, a pitcher who played in the MLB Scouts League last fall, was subsequently signed by the Astros.

But that's just the beginning, Solomon said.

"In two years there will be four or five players drafted in the first round out of here," Solomon said. "I'm not kidding. That's going to open the eyes of some people."

An Academy in the nation's capital was part of MLB's agreement in moving the Nationals from Montreal into a state-of-the-art ballpark funded largely on public funds. The team moved in 2005 and the new yard is slated to open next year. Solomon added that the Phillies had contacted MLB about building an Academy in the Philadelphia area and that his office was also currently looking at land for such a project in Hialeah, Fla., just north of Miami.

In Compton, a six-year endeavor from start to finish began as a nationwide search for a suitable site and later turned into a major land acquisition and construction project. Last year the Atlanta Braves followed by opening their own Urban Academy on a much smaller scale.

Spreading elsewhere should be the goal, said Pierre, the first-year Dodgers center fielder who played as a kid on the unshaven fields of Louisiana.

"They should have others set up," he said. "They should have one like this in the deep south. Just have it accessible. You can't get into these kids' minds, but if given the opportunity to make the choice to play baseball, it can only help."

Given his success in Compton with the first Academy, and Memphis with the first Civil Rights Game, Solomon is also now thinking big.

"If I could have anything I want? What could I have? I'd have an Academy in every city that has a Major League or Minor League team," he said. "That would be hundreds. And they'd be all over. I probably won't be able to get there in my lifetime, but let's get as many built as we can."

Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.