The Cincinnati academy is the fourth in the MLB family, and it's the first one in the Midwest and in a cold-weather city. But in some ways, it's a whole new endeavor. The newest academy cost $7 million to build and boasts a 33,000-square-foot indoor facility that will allow kids to play in poor weather.
The Cincinnati community welcomed the new facility in style Friday, with 400 people showing up for a gala ribbon-cutting ceremony that included the participation of two Hall of Fame legends. Joe Morgan and Frank Robinson, stars of Cincinnati's past, were on hand to register their amazement.
"It came out better than anyone could've expected," said Robinson, who helps define the Urban Youth Academy mission in his current role as MLB's executive vice president of baseball development. "You have your vision of what you'd like to see and what it will look like when it's finished. But I didn't have this vision. And I don't think anyone else did. This is a great facility, and we're just glad to be a part of it. We will continue to work with the Reds to keep it up and support the kids. They are the future."
MLB has previously opened academies in Compton, Calif., Houston and in New Orleans, but none of them have been built in such close partnership with a team and a company like Procter & Gamble. The plan all along has been to use the latest facility as a foundation stone for the next one, and Cincinnati's effort will go a long way in redefining some of the core elements in place.
The Cincinnati academy has four fields, and one includes a small stadium field complete with a press box. But it's the little things that set this one apart. Everywhere you look, there's a reference to some of the great Cincinnati teams and players, giving the local kids a sense of their shared history.
But the main draw of the facility is the field house, which has a turf field to practice on and indoor batting cages and pitching tunnels. There are classrooms for the students to receive free tutoring while they wait to play, and the facility will likely be able to serve hundreds of kids at a time.
Ben Baroody, MLB's senior director of baseball development and Urban Youth Academies, said that the league will have to work hard to find new features that will stand out from Cincinnati.
"It sets a new standard," he said. "Given that we're in a cold climate, it's a huge benefit to have those indoor cages and that indoor practice field. They have the ability to play regardless of the time of year and regardless of what the weather is like outside. We've got the classrooms and the technology center, so it seems like everything is ready to go on and off the field. And now the fun begins."
Friday's ribbon-cutting ceremony was originally scheduled to be outdoors, but inclement weather forced it inside to the indoor facility. That room, adorned with life-sized renderings of Cincinnati greats past and present, served as a perfect backdrop for officials to speak about the academy's mission.
Commissioner Bud Selig, who has presided over the spread of the academies, spoke Friday about the importance of building bridges to the community. Selig quoted Jackie Robinson at one point and Eleanor Roosevelt at another, and he said that baseball's chief lessons take place off the field.
"Our mission with the Urban Youth Academies is to provide young men and women opportunities not only to play baseball and softball, but also to offer them the guidance, tools and values to succeed in the classroom and in life," said Selig of his vision for the future. "We want our kids to understand that baseball and softball can play a constructive role in taking them to extraordinary heights."
Current Reds players Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce were all part of Friday's unveiling, as was Bob Castellini, the chief executive officer of the Reds. Castellini said that he never could've imagined this facility at last year's groundbreaking, and he was proud to be a part of it.
Castellini thanked his corporate sponsors at Proctor & Gamble and went out of his way to credit Selig, who will be retire and be replaced as Commissioner by Rob Manfred in January.
"Commissioner Selig, it's an honor to have you join us. This complex confirms our shared belief that baseball is a social institution," said Castellini of the academy's impact. "Your leadership at the helm of Major League Baseball has resulted in fantastic places like this being built. We have every confidence that our communities will benefit from having this Urban Youth Academy. Not only will it improve their baseball teams, but improve the quality of life for those kids using these facilities."
John Cranley, elected mayor of Cincinnati at age 39, also spoke to the impact the facility could have on the local community. Cranley, 40, said he grew up with baseball thanks to a father who loved Ted Williams, and he hoped for a similar future for countless Cincinnati children.
Baseball, said Cranley, is a great game because it teaches its fans and its players how to deal with adversity in life. And with the newest Urban Youth Academy, he said, Cincinnati won't just be investing in the future of its local youth, it will also be putting its best face forward to the sporting world.
"I want to applaud this great corporate and civic activism for our community," said Cranley. "We're the oldest team, but we're the youngest at heart. And next year, when the All-Star Game comes to Cincinnati, we're going to show off a revitalized city. We're going to show off our renaissance, and I know we're going to show very, very well to the entire world. In my mind, this is just the beginning of a year-long celebration of baseball and Cincinnati as the All-Star Game comes here next year."
Morgan, one of the greatest players in the proud history of the Reds, said that he was invested in the Urban Youth Academy mission from the beginning. He took part in the unveiling of the Compton academy, and he worked tirelessly behind the scenes when Cincinnati's turn came around.
A 10-time All-Star and two-time National League Most Valuable Player Award winner, Morgan found his voice cracking during portions of his brief remarks on Friday. He said he grew up idolizing players like Robinson, and he loved that Cincinnati kids will have a newfound knowledge of their own history.
"I wanted this to be the best, and they've exceeded my expectations," Morgan said. "I was very fortunate when the Commissioner invited me to the ribbon-cutting of the first academy in Compton, Calif. And on that day, I was very proud of Major League Baseball for making that happen. I can't express how proud I am today. I don't have the words to say that, because this one is in my town."
Indeed, it's his town and his streets. The Reds announced that the road that leads into the academy will be known as Joe Morgan Way, forever pointing the path to greatness in sports and life.
Robinson, the only man to win a Most Valuable Player Award in leagues, said that things have changed since he was growing up. Back in the 1940s and '50s, he said, kids had more than enough places to play, but urban development and redistricting has changed that forever.
Now, said Robinson, it's up to each city to carve out a place for the youth to play. That's where the Urban Youth Academy comes in, providing a stage for kids to learn and grow.
"It's not Major League Baseball's future. It's the young people of this community's future," said Robinson. "When Joe and I were coming along, we would go down to the field or play baseball in the streets. And that's where we learned to play the game. But that's all dried up now. There are apartment complexes and office buildings. They're on those fields now and the kids have no place to go.
"This is the future of our young people in the country that just want to play sports. You don't have to be a Major League Baseball player. A lot of them won't be Major League Baseball players. We still want places like this where they have some place to come and play and do whatever they want to do."
So what's next for the Urban Youth Academy? There's a new facility being built in Philadelphia, and MLB has explored the possibility of opening an academy in South Florida. Eventually, the hope is that every big league city -- and perhaps several Minor League ones -- will have their own academy.
The Cincinnati academy played host to The Breakthrough Series last month, and it could eventually serve as the backdrop for the RBI World Series or the Urban Invitational. Perhaps one day it will even produce a player as good as Votto or Phillips, but that's a hope and a dream for a different time.
"This is just the beginning," said Baroody. "Knowing the Reds and knowing how invested they are in their community -- knowing their track record -- they're going to have this place firing on all cylinders."