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Houston, Urban Invitational continue to be great fit

Astros owner Crane has been a major advocate for tourney the past two years

Houston, Urban Invitational continue to be great fit

HOUSTON -- The sixth annual Urban Invitational played to a satisfying conclusion at Minute Maid Park on Sunday, and Major League Baseball is already plotting ways to improve it next year.

Darrell Miller, the league's vice president of youth and facility development, has said in the past that he'd like the Urban Invitational to move around to each of the Urban Youth Academies. But on Sunday, with the final day playing out in front of him, he could think of no better place than Houston.

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"Not to pigeonhole myself, but I think it works really well here," said Miller. "I think it would work well in New Orleans, too, and that it worked well in Compton, [Calif.] It works anywhere. But Minute Maid Park is a great venue, and after hearing the coaches talk about being in a Major League stadium, I think it helps them to recruit. If we can help these guys get better players, that's really what we're trying to do."

Miller, a former big league catcher, said that he would've loved to play in this kind of tournament during his college days. This year marked the first time the tourney exclusively featured historically black colleges and universities, and Miller said the experiment was a rousing success.

All four schools at the tournament -- Southern University, Texas Southern, Prairie View A&M and Alabama State -- were repeat players in the Urban Invitational, and Miller said it's clear that the schools have come a long way in the past six years in terms of playing a better brand of baseball.

"We're pleased with the way all four teams have performed and the talent level," Miller said on Sunday. "You can tell there's better arms and more depth of arms. Also, the guys are playing a little bit different, more inspired. This is just a much more level playing field than it was when it began."

So what will change next year?

Miller will take time to consult each of the schools on what works and what doesn't, and he looks forward to sitting down with the Astros for their ideas. Jim Crane, Houston's owner and chairman, has been a huge advocate for the tournament the past two years.

Miller said that Crane, a former college player himself, is clearly committed to helping college baseball thrive at all levels. And for this tournament, Miller said, MLB couldn't really have a better situation.

"The Astros are phenomenal partners from top to bottom," Miller said. "Jim Crane has been unbelievable. He's the one that suggested we bring all three games to Minute Maid Park this year. He brought it up last year when he came to the Invitational, and we changed the format at his suggestion. Frankly, they get what this can do to inspire kids, and that speaks volumes about who they are."

The Urban Invitational has featured a Battle of the Bands in each of the past two years, and Miller said that he might want to have four bands instead of two next year. He also advocated a theme to the tourney -- perhaps Texas schools against Louisiana schools -- and some diversification.

MLB has made a point to have softball fields and programs at each of its four Urban Youth Academies, and Miller said he'd like to invite some girls softball teams to be part of a future tourney.

That may be on the agenda for next season, but Miller also said that he'd like to keep the tourney small. This year there were four teams, as opposed to the six teams that competed last year.

"I like a little bit smaller tournament. I like that every team plays each other one time," Miller said. "With a six-team tournament, there's a couple teams that don't get to play each other.

"I like that it's an even round-robin tournament, and it's just a bit easier to manage with only four teams. It's not as long a day for the workers and the people in the stands. Baseball purists love to sit and watch all day long -- and I'm one of them -- but you've got to think about the perspective of the people around you."

The Urban Invitational was invented to bring exposure to programs at historically black colleges and universities, and it works hand-in-hand with the Urban Youth Academies in getting more inner-city kids to play the game. And it works, said Miller, because its ideals can be brought to a massive audience.

"Another big thing is having the support of MLB.com and the MLB Network," said Miller. "That, from an exposure perspective, really takes it to the next level. Not only are you in a big league venue, you're on a big league stage. Watching it and being a part of the broadcast [Saturday] night was really incredible. All the things that MLB.com and the MLB Network are doing has made it a Major League tournament. These guys are noticing it, too, and they're talking about it. It's going in the right direction."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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