NEW YORK -- All the hours of hard work will soon find their reward.
J.P. Crawford, a prep shortstop from Lakewood High School in California, is making his first trip to New York this week for the first round of the First-Year Player Draft on Thursday.
Crawford will take in all the sights and sounds of one of the world's biggest cities, but perhaps more importantly, he'll get a hint of his immediate future. Crawford is expected to be taken in the top 20 picks on Thursday, and he said he looks forward to the entire draft experience.
"It's something I'll never forget," he said Monday. "It's probably the most memorable thing."
Crawford and friend and fellow prep star Dominic Smith represent the next wave of talent with ties to Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy. Both Crawford and Smith trained at the UYA facility in Compton, Calif., and both credit the academy for helping them mature.
The Urban Youth Academy has already made a huge impact on the draft, with hundreds of players with ties to one of the four facilities being selected over the last eight years. Carlos Correa, the top player taken in last year's draft, came from the Urban Youth Academy in Puerto Rico.
But this year -- with the potential first-round pairing of Crawford and Smith -- represents another leap forward. Crawford and Smith both spent years at the academy and played in tournaments there, and Crawford credits the Compton Academy with helping to increase his exposure to scouts.
"It helped out a lot," he said of the experience. "That's when I started to get looked at, and it was because of them. And they helped me out with a lot of the stuff I needed to get work on, too."
The duo also played in the 2009 RBI World Series and Crawford was even named the MVP of that championship game. Smith also played on the 2010 team.
The Urban Youth Academy was first established in Puerto Rico, and the Compton base didn't open its doors until 2006. New facilities have opened in Houston and New Orleans, and there are academies under construction in Cincinnati, Philadelphia, South Florida and Washington D.C.
A few players with UYA ties -- such as Anthony Gose, Trayvon Robinson, Aaron Hicks and Efren Navarro -- have already progressed to the Major Leagues, but the true impact has been at the grass roots level. Thousands of prep students have attained college scholarships from their UYA experience, and the hope is that one day every big league city will have its own academy.
Crawford, the brother of Cal State Fullerton softball player Eliza Crawford and son of former Canadian Football League star Larry Crawford, said he spent hours and hours at the Urban Youth Academy working on his fundamentals and dreaming of a day when he could play professionally.
Crawford has always looked up to Derek Jeter, he said, because of the Yankees captain's respect for the game and the way he plays on a daily basis. Crawford could join Jeter and Correa as rare prep shortstops taken in the first round, and he said he's excited to have put himself in that position.
"I've been doubted throughout my whole high school career that I wouldn't be able to stay at shortstop," said Crawford. "That motivated me to work harder on my defense."
Smith, meanwhile, is more known for his offense and his arm. The left-handed hitter saw time at first base and in the outfield when he wasn't pitching, and he batted .551 with nine home runs as a junior. This year, Smith led his team, Junipero Serra H.S. in Gardena, CA, to its first state title.
Smith is also expected to go in the top 20 picks on Thursday evening, and his selection will be another highlight for Major League Baseball. Smith was heavily involved in his local RBI league.
Both Smith and Crawford have committed to the same school -- the University of Southern California -- and they could be college teammates if the draft doesn't break the way they want. But in another scenario, they could both be picked high and start their professional journey this week.
Crawford knows that it won't be easy to make his way through a team's farm system and all the way to the Major Leagues, but he relishes the challenge. This is a young man who can remember when he was a long shot, and he's not going to let anything stand in the way of his goal.
"I practiced every day for hours, taking ground balls, working on fundamentals," he said. "I've always played shortstop since I was a kid, and I wanted to work at it so I could prove everybody wrong."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less