White Sox ACE a boon to inner-city youth
In addition to baseball, program helps teach life lessons
At night, at the end of a long day, Jamell Blue admits to having thoughts of what could have been swirl in his head. Usually, he thinks about two dramatic turns in his young life.
In 2006, Blue went out to pick up dinner for his family. He soon found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time as an innocent bystander during a robbery attempt. He suffered four gunshot wounds and nearly died.
Even though he made a complete recovery, Blue still was highly unsure about his future.
Then his life changed again. In 2007, the Harlan High School student was introduced to the White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE) baseball program. Through ACE, Blue was able to develop his talents as a pitcher. And more importantly, he was able to showcase those talents to college and pro scouts.
It led to Blue receiving a college scholarship at Texas Southern in Houston, where he just finished his sophomore year.
"After I got shot, I didn't know what would happen," said Blue, who majors in sports medicine. "I wasn't sure if I would play. I thought I would just be an average kid. Then I was introduced to the White Sox program. It allowed me to see the ability I have and make the most of it."
Blue's story is essential to telling the complete story about African-Americans in baseball these days. Recent reports focus only on the ominous tale of the declining number of African-Americans in Major League Baseball. USA Today said only eight percent of Major League players are African-American -- down nearly 20 percent from 1975 (27 percent) and more than 10 percent from 1995 (19 percent). Indeed, Jackie Robinson's legacy is being sorely tested by those statistics.
However, here's another statistic: While Major League Baseball wants to grow its number of African-American players, the reality is 99 percent of the young kids who play the game never will wear a big league uniform. That's why the bigger picture needs to encompass African-American players like Blue and programs like White Sox ACE. These inner-city programs are being used as a vehicle to enable Blue and others to get a college education through baseball.
Indeed, this is personal for White Sox general manager Kenny Williams, one of two African-American GMs in baseball.
"I am very pleased with MLB's efforts, not as an effort to increase the number of African-Americans in the game, but for the educational and motivational value of the programs that ultimately lead to college opportunities," Williams said. "There are enough African-American athletes and entertainers. However, there is an extreme lack of doctors, lawyers and businessmen in the African-American community. We are lacking a critical mass of change agents -- people who can influence the next generation and make a positive impact."
That's where the White Sox, team chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and Major League Baseball stepped in. The White Sox saw the trends: Youth baseball had become a game of suburban travel teams, showcases and weekend tournaments at distant sites, where players are seen by scouts and college recruiters. Often, young African-Americans from the inner city do not have the financial resources and support to participate at that level.
In 2007, the White Sox created ACE, an elite travel team program of inner-city players at six different age levels. Since its inception, players from ACE program have gone on to participate at the national level, as well as competing in MLB's successful RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) tournaments. The Sox have committed more than $1.5 million to the program, which fields 104 athletes on 6 different teams.
The connection with the game's heritage is enhanced by the annual "Double Duty Classic," an amateur baseball game at U.S. Cellular Field named after Negro League legend Ted "Double Duty" Radcliffe, at U.S. Cellular Field. The game showcases kids from the 16-18 year old ACE team and some of the nation's best African-American high school talent. Wearing vintage throwback uniforms, they commemorate the Negro League All-Star game long played on the South Side of Chicago at Comiskey Park.
Prior to the game, the Sox hold a special forum for the players. They have the opportunity to learn about the challenges their predecessors faced and the importance of securing an education. Featured guests have included former Negro League players such as Hank "Baby" Presswood and "Tennessee" Ernie Westfield; former players Harold Baines and Jermaine Dye; media personalities Scoop Jackson, Michael Smith and Michael Wilbon; and Williams.
The results are striking. Since ACE's launch, eight players have been drafted by professional organizations, and far more importantly, 34 players have gone on to receive collegiate baseball scholarships.
"Baseball leads to larger dreams and goals. ACE kids want to play baseball on the next level -- whether that is college or the pros," said Kevin Coe, the White Sox manager of youth baseball initiatives and the man charged with driving the ACE program. "What the White Sox have created with the ACE teams is a program that fosters an environment where achieving bigger life goals is a real possibility."
Blue can attest to the program's impact on him. Playing against the best competition and with trips for tournaments to places like California, Blue started to think differently about baseball.
"Playing baseball has made me a better man," Ray said. "I have a better work ethic and I'm a better person. I don't get good grades because I'm the smartest kid. I get good grades because I work hard and because I want to play baseball."
Parents also see the development of their children through ACE. Desiree Hickman's children have flourished in the program: Christian is a sophomore infielder at Alcorn State, and his brother Blake, who was drafted by the Chicago Cubs in the 20th round of the 2012 First-Year Player Draft, has a baseball scholarship waiting for him at the University of Iowa next year.
"The ACE program is strongly concerned with the players' performances off the field," Ms. Hickman said. "As a parent, when you know your child has gone to college, it's a relief. They will do better than we've done. Blake is much more focused on his schoolwork; the program encourages that."
Iowa head baseball coach Jack Dahm and his staff have kept close tabs on ACE players over the past several years. In addition to Blake Hickman, they recently also offered ACE senior Devin Pickett (Marian Catholic) a scholarship to attend school.
"Blake and Devin clearly possess the maturity and acumen to succeed not only on the baseball field at a Big Ten University, but also in the classroom," Dahm said.
That's the goal of ACE, according to Christine O'Reilly, senior director community relations for the White Sox.
"The most important aspect of the ACE program is the development of these kids not just as athletes, but as people," said Christine O'Reilly, senior director of community relations with the White Sox. "Life offers so many possibilities. Our goal is to help them develop skills and let them grow and explore these possibilities."
Williams, who attended Stanford before being drafted by the Sox, says the program supports the dream of making it to the professional level, with the caveat of having other dreams along the way. He stresses the true impact of Jackie Robinson goes far beyond the playing field.
"The man who broke baseball's color barrier knew very well that true accomplishment and success resided inside the 'board room' and within the C-suite," Williams said. "He knew that African-American managers and general managers, that African-American congressmen and senators and an African-American President is far more important to the community than African-American pitchers, sluggers and center fielders."
Williams has a simple but strong message when he meets with young African-American baseball players.
"Whatever effort and work you put into developing athletically," Williams said, "work twice as hard in developing your mind."
Blue says he has taken that message to heart. He is thrilled to have the college experience and to learn what it takes to go to the next level. Even though he was slowed by injuries this year, he still hopes to have a professional baseball career.
However, Blue knows the fickle nature of the game. Now thanks to programs like ACE, he will have other opportunities in life.
"Going to college gives me options," Blue said. "I'll always have something to fall back on."
What Jamell will realize with time and maturity is that with a college education, the "something to fall back on" is actually a world of opportunities equivalent or greater than that on the field.
Commissioner Bud Selig often has retold the story of how days before he passed away in 1972, Jackie Robinson said he "wouldn't be satisfied" until baseball had a black manager and general manager. Both are realities in today's game.
General managers such as Williams with the Sox and Michael Hill of the Miami Marlins represent a growing number of African-American baseball executives. And the likes of Billy Owens with the Oakland Athletics, DeJon Watson of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Del Matthews with the White Sox represent the next generation of leaders in the game. The White Sox, through the ACE program, have made a commitment to developing more of those leaders.
"We are extremely proud of the eight young men from the program who have proven themselves on the field and were drafted by Major League clubs," said O'Reilly. "But the success of the ACE program is about so much more. It is about the 34 student-athletes from ACE that have received collegiate scholarships. It's about opportunity and possibilities."
Ed Sherman is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.