"The Urban Academy is an extension of what the Reds Community Fund has been trying to accomplish for the last 10 years. We're eager to give these kids a chance to work on their skills year-round, be exposed to mentors and resources on a year-round basis, because we'd love to see them become terrific baseball and softball players. But we're more interested in giving them some support in order to get to college," said Charley Frank, executive director of the Reds Community Fund.
The academy, which opened in 2009, has seen exponential growth.
"In terms of the raw numbers, it's been staggering. We were only in operation every other Wednesday two years ago at this time," said Frank, who pointed out that there has been a 400 percent increase in attendance since then.
The academy is up and running six days a week, featuring baseball and girls' softball clinics as well as hosting open gym sessions for local teams. Located at the Gamble Montessori School, the campus boasts several gyms and three baseball fields (including the Brandon Phillips Field), as well as several classrooms used for the educational component of the program.
The program is run almost entirely by volunteers. One of those is Rodney Sears, an assistant coach whose son Noah, 9, participates in the clinics. After coaching baseball "for more years than I care to mention," Sears got involved with the Reds Community Fund through the local Friars Club.
"We would go and play another team and they [would] all come out and have their beautiful uniforms and the latest bats. We would have gloves with different-colored strings and uniforms with four or five different colors," Sears recalled. "The Reds said they would help us out."
But why would Sears, a veteran coach who played the game himself through high school, choose to serve as a volunteer in an urban environment?
"I have never gotten paid to coach a sport. I was offered a coaching job at a high school and it sounded good. But there is something about coaching these kids at this level that does it for me. It makes it worth it to me," Sears said.
Sears went on to explain just what that something was.
"A lot of the kids don't have a good strong homelife where they are being taught morals and values and things of that nature. That's important to me. I start every one of our practices with 'How's school?' 'How are things at home?' 'Are you doing what you are supposed to do?' 'Are you telling your mother and father that you love them?' 'Are you respecting your teachers?'
"The Reds are behind that. They know the kids aren't just learning a game; it's about being accountable to your community and making the right decisions."
Urban Youth Academy director Bill Daggy, who maintains the facility and schedules the clinics, as well as helping as an instructor, feels the same way.
"What we get to do is bring young men in here, and young ladies in here, and teach them baseball and softball. But I think more important than that just getting them prepared to play baseball, what we do is we give them a chance to learn a little. We have a little educational piece that we do here, so what we try to do is teach them responsibility, accountability, and courage; some of the fundamental things that they can take on in their life," Daggy remarked.
Craig Smith has his own unique perspective on the program. Smith participated in RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) programs as a child, even earning a trip to Orlando, Fla., for a tournament, and now has a son, Craig Jr., age 4, who will be enrolled in the Urban Youth Academy.
"[The academy] let me know that baseball still was alive in this city, and that my son would have the opportunity [to participate]. The RBI program is a blessing for the community. It's a community involvement," Smith said.
"Everyone here is on the same page," Sears added. "We're about developing young people."
According to Frank, the biggest challenge the academy has faced is getting the word out. But that's an obstacle they've succeeded in overcoming in the last few years; Frank explained that there is now more demand for gym hours than there is supply.
That's a good problem to have, and one Frank hopes will be remedied by the slated 2015 opening of the new Reds Urban Academy in Roselawn Park. The 33,500-square-foot indoor facility will feature a full synthetic-turf infield and four batting tunnels, along with several classrooms for educational and character development purposes. There will also be four outdoor fields, one of which is being converted into a full-size stadium field complete with synthetic turf. Frank says parts of the Roselawn complex may open as soon as 2013.
But in the meantime, participants like Kei'Shone Scott, 8, and Spencer Boyd, 9, are enjoying the experience at the temporary home at a Cincinnati Public School building. Boyd, a batting helmet askew on his head, called coming to the academy "very fun," saying that he's a much better player for attending. And Scott, between sips of Gatorade on a break from practice, said he "gets to learn a lot of stuff."
"I have coached basketball, I've coached youth football. And this is the best thing, as a coach, that I have ever been a part of," Sears said. "All these people are here because they love kids and they love baseball. But they love kids first."