Urban Invitational kicks off at Minute Maid Park
Fifth-annual tournament played on big league field for first time
HOUSTON -- Small colleges. Big concept. The fifth annual Urban Invitational took a huge step into the future Friday, when it featured games at a Major League stadium for the first time.
Minute Maid Park played host to the tourney's opening day because of inclement weather conditions, and the action will return to the Major League venue on Saturday. Wherever it's held, the Urban Invitational has a clear focus, and that's to bring exposure to baseball programs at historically black colleges and universities and also to expand the popularity of the game with youth in the inner city.
Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's executive vice president of baseball development, said he was thrilled to bring the tournament to his hometown for the first time in its five-year history.
"We're very excited, and to have a Major League facility involved is another good step for us," said Solomon. "We grew the event to six teams because we felt that we could do that in Houston. There were so many historically black colleges and universities in the area, and it made us able to bring more impact on our mission to increase the knowledge of baseball programs in HCBUs across the country. Also, it lets these kids know that there are opportunities to go to these schools."
Six schools -- Southern University, Prairie View A&M, Alabama State, University of California Irvine, Texas Southern and Grambling State -- comprised the field for the Urban Invitational, and they each took their turns playing on the perfectly manicured grass at Minute Maid Park on Friday.
Southern coach Roger Cador, who has brought his team to all five editions of the Urban Invitational, said that his players were especially excited by the chance to play in a big league park.
"I know it had to be exciting for them because as soon as they got here, lights went on and they were taking pictures with their cameras," said Cador. "As I mentioned to them yesterday, there will be guys drafted that never play on a big league field. A lot of these guys will never be drafted, but they're getting to play on a big league field. And that does have a lot of significance in that they'll be always be able to tell their kids and grandkids, 'I played at Minute Maid Park in 2012.' "
Friday's opening day was originally scheduled for the Urban Youth Academy in Houston, one of three MLB-run facilities designed to intertwine education and sports for inner-city youth. Just two years into its mission, the Urban Youth Academy has already begun to leave an imprint.
Sylvester Turner, a Texas state representative and the namesake of the field at Houston's Urban Youth Academy, said that his constituency has quickly warmed to the concept. Over time, said Turner, baseball should only become more and more popular among the people of Houston.
"I've been at church and had mothers and fathers tell me, 'Look, we'd like to have our son or daughter enrolled at the academy,' " said Turner. "It's been a resurgence of interest and enthusiasm. The people in my neighborhood, for instance, are talking more about the Astros than they have in the past. You've got that synergy there, and I believe that what MLB has done will reap substantial dividends over and over again over a period of time. It's exciting for the sport, and it's exciting to think about the fact that its bringing on line kids and generating interest that may have waned for a while."
Solomon and Turner, both graduates of Harvard Law, have known each other for three decades, and they both said they regard this partnership as a blueprint for the future. Turner, in fact, said his long-running friendship with Solomon is proof that there's more to school than just books and learning.
There's also networking, and the Urban Invitational will introduce local students to the concept with a college fair during Saturday's games at Minute Maid. The students -- who will gain entrance to the park free of charge -- will have an opportunity to compare and contrast several schools.
"We're very excited about having 20-25 colleges available to talk to young high schoolers about what the requirements are to go to college," said Solomon. "I think it's very important. A lot of times, those kids don't think about college until they're seniors. And when they're seniors, many times, they miss core classes they had to take and they miss some of the testing programs that they have to go through. I think we need to start thinking about college earlier. So the kids get in free and they'll be able to come in and speak to the college of their choice. And they also get to see some great baseball, some fantastic singing and some bands playing and entertaining."
Solomon, who grew up in nearby Thompson, Texas, said that Houston has a lot going for it and that it could eventually wind up as the permanent home for the Urban Invitational. Major League Baseball is still feeling it out, for now, and Solomon said things will be re-evaluated on a yearly basis.
"We want to see how the city embraces the event," he said. "The Compton area hated to lose it, so I'm going to take a lot of grief when I go back to Los Angeles. I'm loving the event so far, even if the rain didn't let us start the way we wanted today. As a fallback plan, who can beat Minute Maid? This has the capability to be here every year, and I'd like for it to be here because I'm from the area."
That would be just fine for the Astros, who welcomed the event with open arms and were happy to play host to the games for an extra day. George Postolos, the Astros' president and chief executive officer, said that the event and the facility are a near perfect marriage for baseball.
"It's the fruit of the labor that went into building the Urban Youth Academy," he said. "We're proud to be partnered with Major League Baseball -- and with the state and the city -- in developing that facility. This is part of the payoff, having events like today. ... The Urban Youth Academy is a great asset for the city of Houston, and so is Minute Maid Park. We're getting to celebrate that today."
The games will continue Saturday at Minute Maid and they'll conclude on Sunday at Sylvester Turner Park, where the Urban Youth Academy is in full bloom. Turner, for his part, lauded the Astros and Major League Baseball for giving the local youth something to rally around.
"Baseball is now real and it's real in their communities," said Turner. "And for the Urban Invitational to be in Houston, it's exciting. I've had so many e-mails from folks who wanted to volunteer and wanted to participate, community vendors who wanted to be a part of the whole deal. I cannot be more pleased with Major League Baseball and with the Astros that I am right now."
The same could be said for the respective teams and their coaches, all of whom appreciated the opportunity to play on a national stage at the beginning of their season. That sentiment was perhaps best verbalized by Alabama State coach Mervyl Melendez after his team's 5-3 loss.
"It is exciting, not only because we're playing here at Minute Maid Park but also because we're part of an event that is nationally known," said Melendez. "Major League Baseball puts on a great show. We're honored, we're excited and this is what we want to do as part of our program: Be part of the best events. This is definitely one of the best events in the nation."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.