Revival taking root with Urban Youth Academy

COMPTON, Calif. -- Six-year-old Tyler, a mighty-mite with supernova eyes and an electric smile, scampers from home to first on a practice field on the grounds at Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy.

"He eats this up," his father Sean says, watching the little man's hat bob side to side as he banks a turn and heads for second.

Don't tell Tyler baseball isn't cool. Don't tell him it's atrophied in the inner cities these past few decades. Don't tell him it's seemingly unable to compete with basketball and football for top-flight African-American athletes.

When he laces up his cleats and pulls down his navy-blue Urban Youth Academy lid, he doesn't live in any such world. When he pulls up his stirrups, all Willie Wilson-style, and pops a fist in his little glove, he and the rest of the 2,000-plus annual UYA participants (ages 6 to 18) know, like they know the sun is coming up tomorrow, that baseball is booming, that baseball is life.

"That's the way it felt when we were kids," says former Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Kenny Landreaux, a UYA instructor who was a star at Compton's Dominguez High School. "We all wanted to play, we all dreamt of the big leagues, and we couldn't get enough of the game."

The Urban Youth Academy -- a $10 million, four-field facility at El Camino College Compton Center -- opened in spring of 2006 with the hope of lighting a fire, like the one Landreaux remembers, in boys like Tyler (mission accomplished). In conjunction with Major League Baseball's RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) program, the academy aims to weave baseball back into the lives of children in urban America, many of whom have, for years now, been thinking high-tops and shoulder pads instead of ballcaps and fungoes.

With a daily emphasis on fun and fundamentals, the academy attracts kids through a series of short clinics, longer camps, summer league programs, showcase games under the lights and visits from current major league players.

"We want to bring baseball back to the culture, to the community," said Darrell Miller, the Urban Youth Academy's director who played five seasons with the California Angels in the 1980s. "We want the game to take root and grow."

One measure of the academy's success will be its development of future major league talent. Can it find kids and turn them into ballplayers? Can it train ballplayers to be elite performers?

"It's really too early to tell," Miller said. "I'm thinking five years out. Five years from now, as some of our core younger kids reach high school age, I think we'll know what we've got with a program like this."

In that time, and beyond, he said that he believes the academy will turn out major league-caliber talent. He sees players in their late teens in the program now, who have talent and have shown tremendous growth under the tutelage of his coaching staff. Still, even with the talent exhibited by this first group of older players, they are too raw and too old to make the leap to the big leagues, leaving Miller to wonder, "What if we'd gotten a chance to work with some of these kids when they were 11, 12, 13? Where could they be? Where would they be headed?"

But the academy doesn't limit itself to baseball.

"The game is the hook," Miller said while conducting a tour that leads from the campus weight room to its wireless-rigged computer facility. (The academy conducts study sessions and classes; Miller envisions a day in the near future when it will be a full-fledged school.) "We think of it as a way to open up discussions, and to introduce better habits of learning."

More than they talk about producing major league players, Miller and his staff talk about pointing kids toward college, toward genuine vocational opportunities, toward leading productive lives and realizing their individual potential.

"I'm here to make a difference in kids' lives," Landreaux said. "If I can see one of our kids, somebody who never thought he'd go to college, get there, that would be so very gratifying to me."

Robert Carter's 8-year-old grandson, Tekai, is playing long-toss with a buddy in the outfield, bending his arm back and pivoting at the hips like a trebuchet primed for launch. The green walls ringing the field surround and shelter him and his mates. Outside of the field is a city too long characterized by government corruption, white flight, gang violence and widespread despair; a city where things have languished and withered for decades.

"To have this place here, of all places. It means the world, not only because of the opportunity it gives each of these kids but because of the change it represents in this area."
-- Compton resident Robert Carter

"To have this place here, of all places," said Carter, "it means the world, not only because of the opportunity it gives each of these kids but because of the change it represents in this area."

Miller talks about turning a tide. Tyler's dad calls the academy a "cry out against how things have been, an old thing that feels new all over." Landreaux said it's a haven and "a beginning."

How do you gauge the value of what the academy means to the community? You gauge it in the faces of Tyler and Tekai, in the smiles on their father's and grandfather's faces. You watch Miller help a young Latino boy learn to hold a ball like an egg and snap his wrist on the follow-through. You see the academy -- well before it turns out future pros, and just after abandoned fields marked its surrounding environment -- is in the business of starting things.

Even when it can't predict how things will turn out. Even when the academy's instructors can't be sure their efforts are enough to one day turn around the plunging numbers of African-American major leaguers. Even if they can't say for sure how many lives they'll touch and what difference they'll make in them.

It's an act of faith they perform every day here. It's an investment in a principle, in the idea that baseball can and will appeal to today's children (if you reach them early and often), in the promise that baseball can and will teach them discipline, self-respect and self-confidence, no matter what path they choose.

"We're planting seeds," said Miller, looking out over the main field at the academy. "I feel like Johnny Appleseed, casting them to the ground, far and wide."

Eric Neel is a columnist for ESPN.com.