MLB.com Columnist

Phil Rogers

White Sox Double Duty Classic has inner-city pipeline flowing

White Sox Double Duty Classic has inner-city pipeline flowing

CHICAGO -- The way 17-year-old Angelo Smith confidently walked from the bullpen to the mound at U.S. Cellular Field, you would have sworn he had been there before. You would have been right, too.

The lefty from Richards High School was playing in the White Sox Double Duty Classic for the second year in a row. He has been a participant in the team's Amateur City Elite (ACE) program since he was 12, refining his baseball and social skills to such a high level he was recently offered a scholarship to play baseball at the University of Michigan.

"This program has guided me in every way,'' Smith said. "It's why I have my scholarship to the University of Michigan. It's taught me everything I know.''

That was a common refrain in the clubhouse before Tuesday's Double Duty Classic. This was the ninth time the White Sox have held this showcase event for the ACE program, which has the goal of "changing lives on and off the field.''

It was the brainchild of Chicago-based scout Nathan Durst, who felt that African-American players from the city's rough neighborhoods weren't being seen as college material. Scouts from professional organizations would recommend some standouts, but too often those players were overwhelmed by the challenges they faced in the Minor Leagues.

White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf loved Durst's idea to help teenagers receive the coaching and support needed with academics and life skills, and the program has grown from there. Corey Ray, who was selected fifth overall by the Brewers in the 2016 Draft, heads the list of 122 ACE players who have received college scholarships.

Like the University of Illinois-Chicago's Curtis Granderson, whose path Ray is trying to follow, Ray's legacy is already big in his hometown. By helping the University of Louisville reach the College World Series in 2015 and by becoming the highest drafted player from Chicago since Jeff Jackson was selected No. 4 overall by the Phillies in 1989, he provides a road map for younger players.

"If you just put your mind to it, you keep working, anything's possible,'' said Donivan Williams, a third baseman from Morgan Park High School. "You can fulfill your dreams and live out anything you want.''

The Double Duty Classic is named for Ted "Double Duty'' Radcliffe, a former Negro League pitcher-catcher who was a regular at White Sox games before his death at age 103 in 2005. Teams wear uniforms that are facsimiles of those worn in the annual East-West All-Star Game, a Negro League showcase held at Comiskey Park from 1933-60.

A forum was held for the players before the game that featured a question-and-answer session with historian Damion Thomas, White Sox executive vice president Ken Williams, longtime player and coach Harold Baines and Tyrone Brooks, the senior director of Major League Baseball's Diversity Pipeline Program.

Along with ACE players like Smith and Donivan Williams, the game always features some top high school players from other states. Outfielder Courtney Hawkins, the White Sox first-round pick in 2012, and second baseman Micah Johnson, who was drafted by the Sox before being traded to the Dodgers, came from Texas and Indiana, respectively, to play in the Double Duty Classic.

University of Louisville signee Trey Leonard, from Cedar Rapids, Iowa, led off for the East team, while Alek Thomas, the son of White Sox conditioning director Allen Thomas, led off for the West team. The 16-year-old Thomas heads into his junior season at Mt. Carmel High School ranked seventh in the Class of 2018 by Perfect Game.

Because Iowa high schools play their baseball schedules in the summer, Leonard was forced to stop playing for his school to spend this summer on a travel team based in Racine, Wis. He marveled at how the ACE program supports Chicago players.

"That's the part I'm missing out on,'' Leonard said. "These guys have had this relationship since they were so young.''

The families who have players in the ACE program -- an arm of White Sox Charities -- don't face the financial sacrifices that are often tied with having children in time-intensive sports.

"It helps the budget, financially, since it's free to play,'' said Donivan Williams, who helped Morgan Park become the first Public League school to reach the finals of the Illinois state tournament since 2002. "I love how they treat the kids. They put us out in front of the scouts.''

The instruction's not bad, either. Smith has been coached by Marvin Freeman, a Chicago native who pitched 10 seasons in the Major Leagues. The senior-to-be idolizes David Price, but at 5-foot-10, 160 pounds, he hasn't grown into the body that helped Price be the first overall pick in the 2007 Draft.

With a fastball that tops out at 85 mph, Smith normally pitches like former White Sox ace Mark Buehrle. His curveball and changeup are both plus pitches, but his command was off Tuesday. Smith walked three, but he escaped without giving up a run. Even though he pitched well in this event last summer, it's normal to be nervous working on the mound Chris Sale calls his home.

"It's ridiculous,'' Smith said. "You feel like a pro.''

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.