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6/19/2014 10:20 P.M. ET

White Sox thrilled 39th-round pick opts for college

A product of ACE program, Davison used baseball to escape harsh neighborhood

CHICAGO -- James Davison doesn't lack for inspiration. All he has had to do the last couple of weeks is turn on the television and watch his friends Ro Coleman and Corey Ray play in the College World Series with Vanderbilt and Louisville, respectively.

Davison won't lack for opportunity, either.

The recent graduate from Morgan Park High School has turned down a chance to sign with the White Sox to attend Howard College in Big Spring, Texas, and nobody is happier than the White Sox.

They selected Davison in the 39th round of the First-Year Player Draft, but the team encouraged the 5-foot-7 outfielder to pursue the chance to play in college.

"We're very happy for him," said Kevin Coe, the director of Youth Baseball Initiatives for the White Sox. "This is a great situation for him.

"This will help him grow on and off the field."

Like Coleman, Ray and scores of others, Davison is a product of the White Sox ACE program (Amateur City Elite), which was developed by chairman Jerry Reinsdorf and executive vice president Ken Williams. It was designed to use baseball as a way to help motivated teenagers, many from low-income families, to pursue college scholarships and education.

Davison has been in the 11-month-a-year program since he was 13. It might not be a stretch to say that it has been a life saver. He lives in Dolton, a neighborhood with a gang problem. Davison, 18, says he hears gunshots every night and worries about his safety when he is away from his mother's home.

"I live about two blocks from a gas station," Davison said. "If you go to the gas station after about 6 [at night], probably 90 percent of the time, you are going to get robbed or somebody will mess with you. People get shot. They get hurt, killed. The gangs are everywhere. It's scary."

Baseball has been his salvation. Davison has loved playing since he was about 3 years old, first in Chicago park leagues and in his teenage years on the travel teams run by the White Sox.

"If it wasn't for the White Sox, I wouldn't be the person or ballplayer that I am," Davison said. "They basically created me by showing me the ways. Coach Kevin Coe has helped me so much. They told me that I could be who I wanted to be, that I could have a dream and make it happen. They taught me a work ethic and have put me in places with scouts, places where I have a chance to succeed."

Coe gives Davison and his family credit for working to build a different kind of future than many of the kids from his neighborhood.

"I've seen him grow," Coe said. "I've seen him grow as a baseball player. He was a kid playing football and basketball, but he saw that his size limited him in those sports. He decided that baseball was the sport for him, and he has worked at it very hard."

Davison's Morgan Park team went 21-8-1 this year, winning the Chicago Public League title. He hit .480 with 25 RBIs and 32 stolen bases, with his energetic style hard to miss every time he was on the field.

"He plays with a chip on his shoulder," Coe said. "People have been telling him all his life what he couldn't do, that he wasn't big enough, and he's determined to show they're wrong. He does everything at full speed. He runs on and off the field. If he hits a tapper to the pitcher, he runs at full speed to first base."

Coe says Davison turned a corner as a player when he realized that he should be working to get on base, not hit home runs.

"He's always felt he had to hit the ball 400 feet," Coe said. "I had a talk with him last summer, before his senior year. I said, 'You're 5-7, 165 pounds. You need to get on base and then steal second, steal third. You should cut down your swing.' Once that registered, he transformed into a completely different baseball player."

Davison has said he's confident he can reach the Major Leagues. He hopes to play well enough at Howard next year to open eyes and be drafted in the first 10 rounds.

Coe and Davison's other ACE coaches, especially 17-and-under coach Robert Fletcher, continue to stress to him the importance of making his grades in the classroom.

The chance to play baseball in college is terrific, but it's only part of the story. They can't wait to see what this kid from a rough, violent neighborhood does with the chance that baseball has given him.

Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.