HOUSTON -- Sometimes, society needs a kick-start from the sporting world. The first act of the sixth annual Urban Invitational kicked off Friday at Minute Maid Park, starting with a college fair and continuing with a pair of baseball games featuring historically black colleges and universities.
The Urban Invitational has grown exponentially over the last few years, and Friday represented the first time it has exclusively contained historically black colleges. All four teams will be back to play on Saturday and Sunday, celebrating diversity and social progress in the national pastime.
Darrell Miller, Major League Baseball's vice president of youth and facility development, said that the tourney has exceeded expectations in its brief existence. It has helped advance the league's core mission, he said, by exposing the game to people who might not otherwise play it.
"You never know what kind of fruit that will bear, but it's all about inspiring folks to do and be better," said Miller of the league's ambitious initiative. "The goal is to make sure our kids at all the academies and all the RBI programs get to play at the highest possible level. And especially college being a goal. Everything else after that is gravy. If you get your education paid for, that's the goal."
Miller, a former catcher and a member of one of America's most famous sporting families, has consistently underlined the same points. Baseball is better when it's played by a diverse group of people, and the world is better with people who are athletically and academically inclined.
That's been the driving force behind the RBI program -- which stands for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- and for the nascent Urban Youth Academy mission. Major League Baseball now operates four Urban Youth Academies, and four more are in the planning or construction stages.
Houston's academy will host Saturday morning's keynote event, a clinic for 150 Houston-area kids that will be taught by the players who will play in the Urban Invitational. Those kids, many from inner-city homes, may relish the chance to talk to players who have taken a path similar to their own.
"We've been waiting on it since last year," said Daryl Wade, manager of the Houston academy. "It's a good opportunity for us to showcase our facilities and of course showcase our city and this ballpark. It's a great recruiting tool for the schools in the Houston area and other schools as well."
Two of those schools -- local favorites Prairie View A&M University and Texas Southern University -- are involved in the Urban Invitational for the second straight year, and they are beginning to reap benefits. Michael Robertson, coach of Texas Southern, said he can tell that the tourney is making a difference.
"I talked to Darrell Miller last night and I told him it's really the biggest recruiting tool for us," said Robertson. "Being able to play in Minute Maid Park is a great opportunity. For some of the kids -- probably most of them -- this is the closest they're going to get to Major League Baseball. That's an exciting feeling. I talk to them a lot about dreaming, and this is a dream come true."
Southern University and Alabama State are the other schools involved in the tournament, and they'll be looking forward to playing in a game televised on MLB Network on Saturday.
Friday's college and career fair drew more than 1,000 local students to learn about some of the educational opportunities in their area. The schools ringed the concourse at Minute Maid Park, and all the kids who attended were awarded free tickets to the tourney.
"Last year, we had it on a Saturday," said Wade. "This year, we tried it on a school day, and I think that was a good decision for schools to get their kids here. We had probably six school districts in the Houston area represented, and we had over 30 colleges here for them. A lot of kids don't get to see all these colleges, and the colleges don't get to see these kids. We put them all in one place."
Miller, brother of basketball stars Reggie and Cheryl Miller, hopes to one day pair the college fair with a conference on diversity in the workplace. But one thing is certain: The emphasis on education and getting more kids to college will always be the tourney's primary concern.
"This is the first time it was an all-HBCU event, and we're dipping our toe in the water to see what it feels like and what kind of crowds we draw. And what kind of baseball is played," he said. "I think it's come a long way. We couldn't have pulled this off the first time through. And I don't know how many times we'll do an all-HBCU event in the future, but we have the ability now to experiment. This is the sixth year. We can mess with the format a little bit. This is a good year to do it and a good place to do it."
The Houston academy serves 1,200 kids in one form or another, and Wade said the employees have made great progress in tempering their expectations. Baseball, he said, is a game that requires repetition and practice at the expense of playing games every day.
The kids are starting to grasp that concept, he said, and so are their parents. The Houston academy is beginning to take flight and to produce kids that will play in college and perhaps beyond. And more importantly, perhaps, the youngsters are learning that they can dream beyond the diamond.
"We actually have a couple young men that we're really proud of at age 12," said Wade. "We feel that if we keep working with those kids, they'll be ready to go to the next level. We've got some other kids out there that are a little green, and they're learning to love the game. There are other opportunities in baseball besides just playing, and that's important for us as well at the academy."
Over time, the Urban Youth Academy can only expand its impact. There are already four intact facilities -- Houston, New Orleans, Puerto Rico and Compton, Calif. -- and four more being built.
Miller said that new academies in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., could be completed by this time next year, and facilities in south Florida and Cincinnati won't be too far behind them. Eventually, MLB would like to see each of its academies get a chance to host the Urban Invitational.
But that's a far-off goal, and Miller said there are other things to work on and consider for the future. MLB is unsure where next year's Urban Invitational will be played, but Miller said that Houston has been an incredible partner. Where the tourney goes next, he said, is anyone's guess.
"We're going to see how this comes out, and at the end of the day we might do something bigger here," said Miller. "We'd really like to dip our toes into a girl's softball tournament that could benefit some of the girls we've been training. We'd also like to do some kind of challenge at some point -- MEAC versus SWAC or something like it. Maybe we could do something where there's more bragging rights involved or a trophy or something. But that's all still in the planning stages."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.