MLB.com Columnist

Meggie Zahneis

New Urban Youth Academy a point of pride in Cincy

Commissioner Selig, Hall of Famers Robinson and Morgan on hand for opening

New Urban Youth Academy a point of pride in Cincy

Four practice fields, immaculately groomed and replete with floodlights and grandstands. A 33,000-foot indoor practice facility with another field, batting cages and pitching mounds, plus a weight room.

And that all-too-familiar architecture.

No, I'm not talking about the Reds' player development complex in Goodyear, Ariz. But the facility in Roselawn Park in the Cincinnati area is about as close as it gets, with one major exception.

You'll find a classroom -- not a clubhouse -- nestled in the corner of the complex.

See, this one's for the kids.

The Reds and MLB on Friday unveiled the newly built Reds Urban Youth Academy, designed to play host to the greater Cincinnati area's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program. RBI offers area kids ages 7-18 the opportunity to participate in baseball and softball clinics, character development programming, and even academic tutoring and vocational training -- all free of charge.

The Reds are known around the Major Leagues as one of the forerunners when it comes to these youth initiatives, which is no easy task.

"We started operating programs back in 2003, and as they began to grow, we realized that we needed to offer something that was year-round," explained Reds Community Fund executive director Charley Frank. "For baseball to succeed in the urban core, they really need a handful of key ingredients, and one of those ingredients is indoor training space."

Ergo, the RBI program moved into an old Cincinnati Public Schools building for indoor training in the fall and winter, which it would outgrow as it expanded.

That's when Frank and the Reds turned their eyes toward building a new facility, something Major League Baseball had success with previously.

"It wasn't long after we took RBI and tried to make it year-round in the Fall of '09 that we started talking to Major League Baseball," Frank explained. "We were aware of the Compton [Calif., Urban Youth Academy] facility, and they were in the process of completing the Houston complex, which was their second one. And they had also announced [new facilities] in Miami and Philadelphia. It's been about that time, and in those three or four years we have been working with the city and working with the league to identify different sites."

By 2010, the deal was sealed.

"When Major League Baseball and when the Reds brass was brought here by the city," Frank said, sitting in the Bud Selig Conference Room at the Roselawn Park facility, "it was one of those 'a ha!' moments where everyone seemed to have the same epiphany at the same time, and the city was very interested in being a part of it."

And so it was that Friday, the Reds and title sponsor Proctor & Gamble opened the doors of the P&G Cincinnati MLB Urban Youth Academy with a full slate of events, including a ribbon-cutting ceremony attended by Commissioner Selig and Reds stars past (Hall of Famers Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan) and present (Joey Votto, Brandon Phillips and Jay Bruce).

Suffice it to say that all were impressed.

"For those of you who cover me regularly, I say baseball is a social institution," Selig said a press conference for Cincinnati media. "And to be at the academy this morning, see what they've done, is a remarkable experience and proves to me again what a social institution this is, and I congratulate the Castellinis [Reds president and CEO Bob Castellini and COO Phil Castellini] and the Reds. It not only made my day, but it makes one very proud to see the kind of contributions that a baseball team can make, and this was really remarkable.

"I'm just blown away by it. I knew it would be good, but I didn't think it would be that good. But again, here they are living up to what I believe as a social institution and responsibilities. I saw those kids today and I don't know how else to say it: It makes me proud to be the Commissioner of Baseball when you see something like this."

For Frank, that was the ultimate compliment.

"We're very pleased that the Commissioner was as excited as he was earlier today. For Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan and Bud Selig to be here today and to see the emotion in their faces and to hear it in their voices, it's just impossible to describe what this day means to us. I'm sure emotionally it's going to take us a long time to sort through it all and figure out what it all means to us, but it really was a wonderful, wonderful day," Frank said.

The new facility's effect on services offered by the academy is immeasurable, according to longtime volunteer and coach Mark Fowler, who also serves as a police sergeant for the City of Cincinnati.

"For one, as you look around, the facility is beautiful. If you think about it in this context, this indoor facility is 120 [feet]-by-120 [feet]. What we had at our old site, down at Old Cape High School, that was only 60-by-60," Fowler noted. "And that's one of the advantages right here. We'll effectively be able to handle more kids, we have more space to give the instruction, along with we're incorporating a vocational program where we're going to start teaching umpire skills, and we want to [teach] field management to start.

"So we have those programs, plus along with what we have is a [University of Cincinnati] program. They get involved and they do a clubhouse for us when we do our fundamental skills camp. That involves [taking a] limited-skill person -- and that could be at age 8 all the way up to age 13 -- and we run them through an eight-week program, and involve in that the UC program, and they teach character-building skills through a baseball theme. So that's what we do here, and that's the advantages here. And with this new facility, we can house more kids, and we can touch more families up here and help out."

Frank and Fowler know that their work is far from done.

"Today is a celebration of the end of part of the journey," Frank said. "It was an opportunity to just stop for a moment and celebrate this incredible accomplishment that required P&G and the league and the city and so many others and just to stop for a moment and soak it all in. it was very restorative for people that have been working hard on it.

"Our challenge going forward now is, how do we make this exceptional? How do we take what's been a good curriculum the last five years and really start to do some dynamic things with it?"

Friday was also an opportunity for the city of Cincinnati to celebrate with a public celebration held all evening and featuring free food, music and a fireworks show.

"Tonight is an important opportunity for us to just welcome the city back in," Frank said. "This has been a work site for over a year. The community has very graciously allowed us to take over the park, which the end result is very exciting, but that's not very convenient for people. Even in the spring, when the fields were heavily in use, a lot of the park was still blocked off and parking wasn't really convenient. So we really wanted to have a night where we could just tell the community that we appreciated their support and patience and we wanted to do something nice for the people here that make the park their home.

But the academy is sure to pay dividends for the city.

"It's [going to help with] more of the social ills our kids get involved with," Fowler, a 20-year police force veteran, explained. "Because that's what they're seeing every day, day-to-day, and we kind of want to change that and give them a new outlook, give them somewhere else to go, somewhere nice to come and play so they can feel welcome and wanted. So we're just trying to instill in them that somebody out there cares, and that's what we want to get across to the community."

After all, that's what it's all about.

"I meet smiling faces all the time," Fowler said. "Just think how many more smiling faces are going to come in and out of the door."

Meggie Zahneis, winner of the 2011 Breaking Barriers essay contest, earned the job of youth correspondent for MLB.com in the fall of '11. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.