Compton pays dividends in first year
MLB's Urban Youth Academy celebrates first anniversary
COMPTON, Calif. -- A year after it opened, Major League Baseball's first Urban Youth Academy, located on the campus of El Camino College Compton Center, has exceeded all expectations.A glistening jewel 15 miles south of downtown Los Angeles, its four fields, and an extensive clubhouse and learning facilities, have become a haven for more than 2,000 local youths who have been taught baseball, academics and how to cope with life in the underprivileged environs surrounding the campus. "It's been amazing; actually, a lot of fun for me," said Darrell Miller, the academy's director, who has been involved in the day-to-day operations of the facility since its debut on Feb. 28, 2006. "Our goal was to implement MLB's vision, implement the program and marry them to what the community needed. We actually pulled it off. And it's exciting to see the whole thing work." The idea of the Academy was the brainchild of Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB vice president of baseball operations, and went forward with the blessings of Commissioner Bud Selig. At the cost of $10 million, it is the prototype of other like endeavors projected for communities such as Washington, D.C. A year ago, when Selig symbolically cut the ribbon at ceremonies, celebrating the Academy's opening, he said it was "a great day to be the Commissioner of baseball." A year later, his excitement hasn't dissipated. "I'm immensely satisfied," Selig said, speaking not only about Compton but MLB's myriad initiatives to grow baseball among African-American youths living in inner cities. "I'm immensely satisfied about Compton and all of this, not because you have to do it, but because you want to do it. This has been a privilege." The Youth Baseball Academy gives MLB a tangible presence by building facilities that complement other urban initiatives, such as the RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, which attracts more than 120,000 kids worldwide and staged its annual World Series on the main field here last Aug. 2-10. The Academy was designed to increase the recreational and developmental skills of children, ages eight through 17. It features baseball and softball instruction for boys and girls as well as clinics and classroom instruction on such related activities as coaching, umpiring, scouting, sports photography and groundskeeping. Already, the Academy has produced two players signed by Major League teams -- Lyndon Pool, who was signed by the Dodgers based on his performance in a one-day tryout camp, and Cardoza Tucker, a pitcher who played in the MLB Scouts League last fall and was subsequently signed by the Astros. "It's just tremendous what's happened here already," said Solomon, who has turned his immediate attention to staging MLB's first Civil Rights Game, an exhibition between the Indians and Cardinals in Memphis on March 31. "We've already had so many kids through the Academy in one session or one clinic or another. We had the umpire's school last year and we'll have it again this year. We'll do the groundskeeping clinic again. So there will continue to be a lot of activity." Completion of this was a six-year endeavor that began as a nationwide search for a suitable site and later turned into a major land acquisition and construction project. The official groundbreaking took place on June 18, 2004, with completion of the facility on 10 acres of underdeveloped community college land coming less than two years later. MLB studied other locales as home to its first U.S. Academy, but Compton, a minority community located in a cradle of rich baseball history, seemed to be an ideal place. The area surrounding the Academy is 55-percent Hispanic and 40-percent African-American. A number of high-profile big league players, including Bob Watson, Hall of Famer Eddie Murray, Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis and the late Chris Brown, came out of the poorer Los Angeles neighborhoods and at one time or another played games in Compton. Murray's brother Leon, another former area high school player who had a stint in the Minor Leagues, is now the security manager for the Academy complex. Watson, who grew up in nearby South Central Los Angeles, had a 19-year career with Houston, Boston, the Yankees and Atlanta and is now MLB's vice president of on-field operations and the general manager of USA Baseball. "I can't believe how great this is," Watson said about the project. "All the guys who were playing baseball when I came up, if we didn't have the structure to do it, every one of us would have become athletes in other sports. This gives inner-city kids a chance to play the game of baseball again." Additionally, because of a $500,000 grant from Angels owner Arte Moreno, many of the area kids have been able to attend higher level education courses with the goal of eventually earning college credits at Santa Monica City College. According to figures provided by the Academy, only 52 percent of the kids in the community surrounding the complex graduate from high school. The Academy is striving for a 60-percent graduation rate from its participants, Miller said, and to that end, kids are given access to develop computer skills, attend English, speech and personal development courses, and ultimately receive an associates degree via online classes conducted through the auspices of the University of Phoenix. During the five-week program underwritten by Moreno, kids attended Santa Monica City College, taking college-level courses for high school credits in the morning, followed by baseball and softball instruction at the Academy in the afternoon. "The most important adjustments we've made, our biggest strides, have come in the education arena," Miller said. "And another of our peripheral goals was to have the local high school teams play at a higher level. And we've been able to accomplish that as well. You can see that just through regular instruction at our place, their skill level has improved dramatically. I'll be excited to see this coming spring how that plays out in actual wins and losses." It's only the beginning, but a year after it opened, MLB's first Urban Youth Academy has already had its desired impact.
Barry M. Bloom is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.