NEW YORK -- The Urban Invitational is coming back to Houston later this month, and it's bringing with it a sense of maturity for the tourney's original goal. Now, five years after the inaugural round-robin tournament, there are four Urban Youth Academies and three more in the planning stage.
The sixth edition of the tournament will take place at Minute Maid Park will from Feb. 22-24, and tickets to the event can be purchased on MLB.com. This year's tournament will, for the first time, exclusively feature historically black colleges and universities, and it comes when Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy mission is thriving.
Darrell Miller, Major League Baseball's vice president of youth and facility development, credited Commissioner Bud Selig for the growth of the sport's involvement in inner-city communities, and he said Wednesday that he hopes to one day have an academy in every big league city.
"We're excited about our own personal growth of the Urban Youth Academies and also that the concept is catching fire across the United States, because people want to play baseball and girls softball and they want to play them without going broke," Miller said. "In regards to the Urban Invitational, we're happy because now we're able to have other academies host the Urban Invitational, and it gives the kids at every academy a chance to see the sport being played at the collegiate level. ... For us, it really means a lot in regards to how we intend to expand and give opportunity to other people so they can host the tournament and participate in the tournament."
Indeed, the tournament was originally held at the academy in Compton, Calif., and last year represented the first time the games were played at a big league venue. Minute Maid Park will reprise its role this year, but future editions of the tourney could be held in New Orleans or facilities that are still being built.
The four schools involved have all had a taste of the Urban Invitational. Southern University will be back for its sixth round, and the other three schools -- Alabama State University and local favorites Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University -- will be back for the second time.
Mervyl Melendez, head coach at Alabama State, had also been involved in the tournament in his previous stint as coach of Bethune-Cookman, and he said his team was honored to be invited back. This tournament, he said, is one of the highlights of the season for his players.
"What it means is not only exposure for our program, but just being involved in the setting that these guys want to eventually play in," said Melendez. "Professional baseball is the dream of every single athlete, and they want to get in that setting. Unlike any other tournament in the nation, it's run by Major League Baseball. It's run first class like it was a Major League event.
"We're really very honored to be a part of it, to get the exposure and get the kids excited about our program, along with the other programs that are here. We wouldn't trade it for the world. We wouldn't trade it for anything else. We hope to be a part of it in the coming years as well."
The tournament will give members of the Houston community a chance to see high-caliber baseball up close, and it will give the players involved a chance to be on television. Some of the games will be televised on MLB.com and MLB Network.
Roger Cador, head coach at Southern since 1985, has graduated players to the big leagues and has seen a generation of talent come and go. But he knows that one thing holds true: Recruits and experienced college players love the chance at national exposure.
"Kids want to be on TV and national TV," said Cador. "That helped us a great deal in getting some of those kids out of Puerto Rico. We've done well in the United States, too, because I get letters, phone calls and e-mails from kids who say, 'I see you on MLB playing. Your team did very well.' So that helps a great deal also. But this thing is more than just within the United States. It's international.
"I know that when I go international to parts of South America, people say, 'I saw you on MLB playing. You're that coach.' They recognize me based on that. What this Urban Invitational has done is made us global. And that's the beauty of what they do. They have a global network, the MLB [Network]. I've had people call me from China who saw the game on TV. They're seeing it a little bit everywhere."
Cador said Southern got a big lift from beating Division I schools like San Diego State and Cal State Northridge, but this year his team will be the big fish in the pond. And if Prairie View and Texas Southern get their way, they'll have a chance to enhance their name with a big victory.
Waskyla Cullivan, the coach at Prairie View, finds himself in an interesting predicament. He used to coach on the staff of Texas Southern coach Michael Robertson, and he holds each of the tournament's competitors in such high esteem that he seems determined to enjoy the weekend.
"Last year, it was a great opportunity for our university and for our kids to participate on a national stage and on national television," said Cullivan."Coach Melendez is a coach I have admired because we're similar in age. And Coach Cador and Coach Robertson are coaches that are mentors for me, so I'm excited about the schools that are participating in the Urban Invitational this year."
The Houston fans won't only get great baseball at the Urban Invitational, but they'll also have the opportunity to walk through a career fair and college fair at Minute Maid Park.
Scholastics and athletics meet at the Urban Youth Academy mission, and Miller said that he hopes to create Major League citizens whether or not they go on to a career in baseball.
"The kids not only have access to the colleges that are playing and competing in the tournament, but we have 25-30 colleges demonstrating the opportunity that exists at their universities," said Miller. "We know that without an education, especially in today's world, everybody's going to have a difficult road. It used to be 30-40 years ago that a high school education was sufficient. We all know unequivocally it is not, and we have to do everything we can to get every child in America to their highest possible level scholastically and educationally."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.