The Urban Youth Academies are working in more ways than one, quickly becoming an important part of their communities and inspiring growth from within. And for Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball development, it's just the beginning.
Solomon was honored at the Congressional Minority Business Awards late last year, where he received a Corporate Empowerment Award for his decades as a "Game Changer." That distinction meant a lot to him, he said Tuesday, because it reflected the progress of several projects.
"It's great for us," he said, "It shows that our industry is doing what we set out to do, and that's not just show leadership in the corporate world but in the community. We made an investment in Compton, and we wanted to help these kids, to supplement their educations and teach them about the great game of baseball. We wanted to help them with their life skills and prepare them for college."
And that was the inspiration for the first of MLB's Urban Youth Academies, a template which has since been followed in Puerto Rico and Houston. There's another academy currently being built in New Orleans, and others that will open in Philadelphia and south Florida in the coming years.
Solomon wasn't on hand to receive his award in January, but he received another thrill when U.S. Representative Laura Richardson presented it to his daughter Tricia. Richardson called Solomon a good friend, but noted that he's especially a friend to the community she represents.
Richardson, who serves California's 37th congressional district, lauded Solomon for his work in establishing the Civil Rights Game and paying tribute to the game's rich history of minority players. But most of all, she said, she was there to thank Solomon for the academy in Compton.
"Finally, why I think I was asked to give this honor today to Mr. Solomon is the fact that he was instrumental in creating urban academies," she said. "Being able to teach the young people at very young ages in my district in Compton, they started the first Urban Youth Academy, where it has served over 10,000 young boys and girls ages 7-18. Every week, 200 youths are served by the academy's baseball and softball training. Not only has it helped the young individuals to learn the sport of baseball, but this academy is held on the former Compton College location. So Compton College, for the first time in years, has now had unprecedented winning seasons and this last year went to the playoffs. That was because of the training that existed at the urban academy."
Solomon said the tribute touched him from afar. And when he stopped to reflect on it, he thought about the differences he's seen in the local community.
The Urban Youth Academy has acted as an anchor, he said, revitalizing parts of the inner city and allowing other positive outlets to spring up around it. And over time, he said, you'll see the same process at the Houston facility, which will celebrate its second anniversary in April.
"There are kids that I met at the academy that played for four years and then got drafted," he said of the Compton facility. "There are 30 Major League clubs, and we've got more than 50 kids working their way through farm systems. We had two kids -- Trayvon Robinson and Effren Navarro -- make it to the Majors last year, and we have 25-30 more that are working as Minor League umpires.
"It just goes to show you what people with talent can do when they get specialized training at a specialized facility. We're just trying to bridge the gap. There are a lot of kids out there that are just waiting for someone to love them, just waiting for someone to teach them about life."
And that's the stated mission of the urban initiative, to reconnect minority citizens to the game and to help provide educational opportunities to people that might not otherwise be able to afford one.
That mission took center stage at last month's Urban Invitational, which took place in Houston and starred the baseball programs of five historically black colleges and universities. Now, the focus is on the development of future youth academies and preparations for August's Civil Rights Game.
Perhaps the best part of the award, for Solomon, was his daughter's participation. Tricia Solomon, an attorney, spoke warmly of her father and the difference he had made in her life, telling the crowd an intimate story of her upbringing and what it meant to her to have fatherly guidance.
Tricia Solomon didn't know her father until she was 16, she said, but once she met him he became an indispensable part of her life. She went to live with him, and he helped make her childhood ambition of becoming an attorney a reality, a fact that she said she'd never forget.
"We have the Game Changer theme here, but I will venture to say that my dad is a life-changer," she said. "I see that in the Urban Youth Academies, and I see that in the Civil Rights Game. I see that in all the love and generosity he showed to me in changing my life for a little girl from Richmond, Texas. I see that in his spirit of giving back to the communities and helping others achieve their dreams and I realize there's so much more we can do. We don't have to be limited to our circumstances."
Those words, as much as any award, touched Solomon to the core, and he spoke Tuesday of how proud he was of his daughter and what her acceptance speech meant to him.
"She was a little nervous, because it was her first time speaking on my behalf. But she's a tremendous speaker, a better speaker than I am," he said. "We have an interesting story. And while my daughter gives me credit for changing her life, I can't say enough for how brave she is for going to a world that was very different for her and totally opposite of everything she knew."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.