Originally posted on Fox Sports Houston  |  Last updated 2/18/12
HOUSTON The success stories extend beyond the raw numbers, although the totals rattled off by Jimmie Lee Solomon, executive vice president baseball development, Major League Baseball, are impressive. In the five years since Major League Baseball opened its first urban youth academy in Compton, Calif., that program has produced 175 graduates that have earned college baseball or softball scholarships, and an estimated 70 prospects selected in the First-Year Player Draft. Two graduates, Mariners outfielder Trayvon Robinson and Angels first baseman Efran Navarro, made their big-league debuts last season. Sometimes the impact of what Major League Baseball is striving to accomplish within inner cities is more tangible. When graduates who have yet to parlay baseball into an occupation but are continuing to play the game they love on an advanced stage return and instruct at the academy, Solomon is struck by the influence of their mere presence. "They can connect with the kids in ways that I can't because I'm just too old," said Solomon, a Richmond native. "I'm saying all the right words but there's a disconnect because I'm an old dude to those young kids. "I can't coach as well as a young man who they played with, who they saw play, who they feel they can be like who's touching them every day." The Fifth Annual Urban Invitational relocated to Houston for the first time and cast a local spotlight on the initiative to address the issue of declining participation in baseball in African-American communities. Blacks in baseball are dwindling across the board, from the college ranks and professionally, and in addition to the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, the urban academies were developed to stem that decline. The Urban Invitation is the program's signature event. While five Historically Black Colleges and Universities Texas Southern, Prairie View A&M, Southern, Grambling State and Alabama State - participated in a round-robin format along with UC-Irvine, Daryl Wade, manager of the Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy, talked development. Since the Astros' academy at Sylvester Turner Park opened in April of 2010, progress has been incremental. Making inroads in Acres Homes, where football is king, isn't something that happens instantaneously. The myriad reasons behind the declining interest in baseball in inner cities have been discussed ad nauseam. What Solomon and Wade are attempting to do is reinvigorate communities where interest in baseball has waned. The process starts at the grassroots level with youngsters who have yet to reach the crossroads where they often choose between baseball and the two sports with mass appeal: football and basketball. Growth has been steady. Wade has one fulltime assistant and a support staff of 10-12 instructors. The first wave of kids entered the program as preteens; now they are teenagers, and Wade hopes they will emulate their Compton counterparts and earn college scholarships in the future. "We have so many kids in the Houston area that could possibly play baseball," Wade said. "We're a major city and we're at a point where there isn't a lot of green space. This academy gives us four fields with green space so now a kid can pick up a baseball and go play baseball. "It's a lot different from the 1960s when I was growing up where we'd go around the corner and play the guys from around the corner on their vacant lot. The next day we'd play on our vacant lot." Baseball remains a skills-oriented endeavor, and because training has become so specialized, Wade is aiming to provide exceptional instruction for attendees at the Astros' academy. Last month he hired former Cardinals and Reds outfielder Bobby Tolan, whose credentials eliminated the need for a formal interview, as his head instructor. Tolan spent 13 seasons in the majors (1965-79), earning a World Series ring with the Cardinals in 1967. He led the majors in steals (with 57) with the Reds in 1970 and appeared in the Fall Classic three more times: 1968, '70 and '72. He carries a cache among the youthful hopefuls, an influence that's easily burnished whenever Tolan displays his hardware. His calling is to teach the game the proper way. For someone who played when blacks were an integral part of the sport, having a hand in the development of a new generation marries well with the purpose of the academy. If Major League Baseball seeks to grow the game, the best course of action is to use accomplished players like Tolan as conduits. "It would be nice if some of these minority stars of the past would come out, but they might not have these academies in all these different cities," Tolan said. "The ones that they do have you've got to reach out to the community and get those minority players back out and teach our minority kids the proper way to play, and we can do it because we've been there and done that. We can teach these kids how to play baseball the proper way and it makes it easier when you get to the next level. "What we're doing now is so great, and it's going to continue as long as the kids keep coming out." The success stories of academy graduates are modest, but that might change. Among the top 100 prospects recognized by MLB.com three emerged from the Compton academy, including Astros farmhand Jonathan Singleton, the organization's top overall prospect. Singleton was ranked by MLB.com as the 44th-best prospect in baseball, followed by Blue Jays farmhand Anthony Gose (who was acquired by the Astros in the Roy Oswalt trade with the Phillies and shipped in exchange for infielder Brett Wallace) and Twins farmhand Aaron Hicks. Gose and Hicks are rated as the Nos. 57 and 72 prospects in baseball, respectively. As prospects emerge and as more graduates earn scholarships to continue their careers collegiately, the greater goal comes into focus. The level of participation for blacks in baseball might never reach its heyday of glory years past, but if the decline can be slowed, progress will be made. "It really, truly allows the kids to feel that if Johnny can make it, and Johnny is just like me and he's from where I'm from and looks like me, then maybe I can make it," Solomon said. "It's not as far of a stretch as people think." Follow me on Twitter at moisekapenda
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