01/28/12 10:15 PM EST
MLB's Urban Youth Academy offers inspiration
Robinson, others provide hope for aspiring ballplayers
By Spencer Fordin / MLB.com
Robinson, who just finished his rookie year with the Mariners, could have been at the first day of his team's FanFest, but he felt a need to pay tribute to the place that gave him his start. Robinson, in this environment, is a big brother of sorts. And even more, he's a beacon of hope.
"Its awesome. Its just like playing in the big leagues, playing against 10-year veterans," he said of the alumni game. "Some of the guys that are on the alumni team started it here, and the young kids we're playing against are trying to make a difference. They're trying to get in our shoes."
And Robinson could understand that. It wasn't so long ago that he was starring at nearby Crenshaw High and honing his abilities at the Urban Youth Academy. Robinson said he'd be able to attend the second day of Seattle's FanFest on Sunday, but he only had one chance to play in this game.
The alumni took a 14-8 victory over the academy's current players on Saturday, but the score was hardly the point. The Prep All-Stars led, 5-1, after five innings, and had a chance to measure themselves against some players who have starred at the college level and beyond.
Cesar Aguilar, a veteran of two seasons with the Cardinals' affiliate in the Gulf Coast League, said he could remember being on the other side of the alumni game. Aguilar, a right-handed pitcher, said that he recognized the importance of his time at the academy and wanted to pay it forward.
"Every time I'm invited, I'll be here. I'll be the first one here," he said. "I went from being a kid that could get drafted but nobody knew about to someone that got a lot of exposure here. Everything goes to here. This is where I started, and I think I just had to be seen by the right people. We're trying to get to the big leagues. And for these kids, we all understand, because we've all been there."
Ricky Oropesa, who was drafted in the third round by San Francisco but signed too late to play in the Minor Leagues last season, echoed many of the same sentiments. Oropesa, an infielder, began training at the academy in 2007, and credited the atmosphere for helping him grow.
"It's been a fun ride. I enjoyed my three years at USC," said Oropesa of his college years. "They were the best three years of my life, and I believe that the academy and the whole staff here helped me get to where I am today. It definitely opened the doors for me, and I'm really grateful."
The Compton campus of the Urban Youth Academy is housed on a location that comprises more than 20 acres of El Camino College, and it features four fields and a spacious clubhouse and training facilities that allow the youth to play all year round. There is already an established academy in Houston, and another sister location in Puerto Rico that also doubles as a high school.
That's all part of Major League Baseball's vision to bring the sport back to the inner city and to make instruction available to a wider segment of society. Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, said the Alumni Game was a milestone for all the right reasons.
"It's just great to be able to see the kids get to the Major Leagues and to be on the cusp of making it," he said. "We're able to now let these guys shine and also be a beacon for the guys that are following them. There's a lot of kids that are going to college -- and that want to go to college -- and even some young kids that are really good players. We have some girls that are softball players, and they look at these guys that are there or almost there and they go, 'Wow, there's hope. I know I can get there.'"
Robinson, who batted .210 in his first 44 games with the Mariners, said he relished the opportunity to return home and to see the kids trying to turn a love of the game into something even bigger.
"You can always see one or two things: their passion or their athleticism. More so, you've got to have the passion -- and if you're coming here, you've got the passion," Robinson said. "That's one of the things with MLB, and this Urban Youth Academy is one of the best things that ever happened to the inner city. You've got a lot of kids that have the passion to play baseball, but they don't have a facility."
There will be another Urban Youth Academy opening in New Orleans, La., this summer, and there are plans to expand to Philadelphia and South Florida. And if the early returns from Compton, Puerto Rico and Houston are any indication, this is just the beginning of a talent infusion to the game.
"The guys are showing that they have baseball IQ," said Miller. "A lot of scouts are giving our kids a chance. A lot of colleges are coming to look at the kids that come to the academy, and they're seeing that these kids can go out and play -- they can be impact players at Division I and Division II schools, and also in Minor League systems. We're really blessed to have a good staff, and good support from the Commissioner and from Jimmie Lee Solomon, to be honest with you."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. Ben Platt contributed to this story. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.