Diamonds In The Rough

By Jeff Passan
Updated: August 3, 2006

COMPTON, Calif. – Cy Wiggs does not realize he is caught in the middle of a fight, and because he is 12 years old, he does not worry about that kind of stuff, either. Right now, the only thing on his mind is pizza.

It’s what’s for lunch today at the Urban Youth Academy, Major League Baseball’s attempt to claw for relevance among the African-American youth stolen away by football and basketball.

Cy has already plowed through firsts, seconds and thirds, and as he’s in line for fourths, he looks in front of him, then behind him, and sees nothing but teenagers, with whom the younger kids at the academy rarely interact. One of the teens sizes up Cy and turns to a friend.

“That,” he says, as if Cy weren’t around, “is one big-ass kid.”

Cy, 5-foot-8 and at least 180 pounds, with the kind of build that, once his baby fat melts off, will taper into the long and lithe sort that makes baseball, football and basketball scouts alike furiously punch their BlackBerries, gets his slice and returns to a bench seat with kids equal in age and half his size.

“I ain’t never seen a 12-year-old in a grown man’s body like that,” another teenager says. “What you been eatin’? Peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches or something? I bet you’re hitting home runs out of that Little League field.”

Quite often, yes, and that’s why Cy is not only in the middle of the fight. He is the fight. With African-Americans comprising just 8.4 percent of players on active major-league rosters, according to an analysis by Yahoo! Sports, it’s one baseball is tired of losing.

Instead of hoping kids gravitate to baseball, MLB is taking a different tack with the Compton academy: It’s bringing baseball to the kids.

And it’s doing so in the heart of a hardscrabble city made infamous by gangsta rap. Built next to Compton Community College, which no longer exists after recently losing its accreditation, the academy is four well-tended fields surrounded by trailer homes and empty canals – literally diamonds in the rough.

Compton also happens to be on the outskirts of a Los Angeles area that for years was the preeminent location for young African-American baseball talent.

Hall of Famers Eddie Murray and Ozzie Smith were teammates at Locke High. Darryl Strawberry, Eric Davis, George Hendrick, Bob Watson, Reggie Smith and Dock Ellis were drafted or signed out of local high schools, too.

Baseball’s history in Los Angeles is as big as its current state is bleak. Which made Compton the perfect location for the first academy, very loosely modeled after the academies teams run in the Dominican Republic and Venezuela to rear young talent.

“They’re going to know how to play, and they’ll have an opportunity,” says Darrell Miller, the academy’s director and former big-league player with the California Angels.

“Once you know the game, you fall in love with it. If you’re comfortable, there’s a future in baseball. Kids need to know that. They just need the chance to play.”

Even though kids are supposed to attend for two weeks at a time, Cy has been coming all summer. The coaches see his potential and won’t dare let him go to football practice, where he plays linebacker.

They crow at the line drives he hits, like the one that nearly beheaded his friend Juan Abena a few minutes before lunch.

They’re sitting at the table, making small talk like 12-year-olds do.

“Cy,” Juan says, “you play basketball?”

“No,” Cy says.

“You should,” Juan says.

At the small field toward the back of the complex, Carl Nichols stands with his hands on his hips. Every so often, he glares at a kid and touches his belt. The kid tucks in his shirt, almost Pavlovian.

Nichols’ stare frequently lands on Cy. Sometimes he’s messing around with another kid, other times he’s drifting off into his own little world, and that’s fine. When Cy starts lazing, the timbre in Nichols’ voice stiffens.

“Hey, big man,” Nichols says. “Don’t rest on your knee. It’s not relaxation time.”

The kids are playing catch, as they always do to start the day, and Nichols, who spent parts of six seasons with the Baltimore Orioles and Houston Astros, is in charge. He gets to the academy at 8 a.m. and stays until 10 p.m., seven days a week, trying, alongside Miller, to nurse it from infancy.

The academy opened in February, and while the grounds look pristine and the $750,000 budget is healthy, they envision it growing into a haven for Los Angeles-area baseball – one that produces the best travel teams, five to 10 draftable players per year and can still give free instruction and equipment.

For now, it looks like a summer camp. Kids slog through mud in a single-file line to reach the back field and goof off for a minute or two before getting down to business. Every time they throw the ball away, they know to do 10 sit-ups.

And if they don’t, Jake Thompson, a volunteer coach and standout high school pitcher in the area with unimpeachable peripheral vision, catches them – as he proves twice with Cy.

“There are some kids who are just natural,” Nichols says as Cy stalls on his ninth sit-up. “You can just see it. He just needs a little work. His mechanics are off. But he has the hand-eye coordination to do this.”

When Cy arrived at the academy, he had trouble catching the ball consistently. He’s got that down now. He opens his body too far when he throws, an issue the coaches will correct soon enough.

“That’s the thing about this place,” Miller says. “One day a guy can’t throw a ball from here to there, and the next he can throw a ball on a line 180 feet because of increased mechanics.

”I mean, we entered this 19-and-under tournament this last month, and we finished third. It was our first foray into tournament play, and it was because we were disciplined. Batting practice. How to hit the ball the other way. How to hit a cutoff man. People underestimated us.”

Discipline, Miller says, was the team’s hallmark, a testament to the academy’s strict rules. Signs are posted everywhere: No gum chewing. No sunflower seeds. No playing in the lobby. No spikes/cleats at the Academy.

Teenagers must attend class in the morning – English, this particular day, taught by a Santa Monica College professor using Derek Jeter’s autobiography as the text – to play in the afternoon. The 12,000-square-foot building that houses the academy’s offices, locker rooms, weight room and training room must stay clean.

Because Miller has enough to juggle as is. Six batting cages are going up with six donated pitching machines worth $50,000, and two cases of balls sent by Houston Astros general manager Tim Purpura just arrived, and the air conditioning is out in the school building, and computers need to get hooked up for study hall, and it’s like this every day.

“There’s so much to do,” Miller says. “And we want to do everything. But we can’t. Not this quickly. It’s going to take time.”

In another time, the best amateur baseball in the Los Angeles area was played three miles from the academy. At Jackie Robinson Stadium, in Compton’s Gonzales Park, the city’s greatest talent gathered for pickup games.

Now, Jackie Robinson Stadium is in shambles. Bottle caps and Snickers wrappers and stray paper and cigarette butts and Sno-Cone cups litter the field. There is an empty Tecate box in the dugout.

The bases, covered with dirt, look as though they haven’t been used in weeks. There are no baselines. The outfield fence is broken. Every 10 feet there is a patch of dead grass. The palm trees in right field looked burned out.

The field might as well be a parking lot.

“It’s football, basketball, video games, 162 channels on your television, iPods, on-demand video,” says Jimmie Lee Solomon. “There are so many things to catch a kid’s attention. And that’s what we’re fighting.”

Solomon is MLB’s executive vice president for baseball operations and the brains behind the academy. When he joined MLB in 1991, Solomon says, he noticed a slight decrease in the number of African-American players from the heyday in the mid-1970s, when the number exceeded 25 percent.

In 1999, when it dropped to 13 percent, Solomon dreamed up the idea of an academy in the United States. He mocked up a plan the next year and got budget approval for a $10 million facility in 2001.

Finding the right location would prove toughest. Solomon went to Miami, Atlanta, Houston, Pittsburgh, New York, Washington, D.C., and various parts of Los Angeles. He thought he had found a spot in L.A. until they discovered a potentially flammable methanol leakage. Another location did not work because its ground was sinking.

“Then I came upon Compton,” Solomon says. “And it was the perfect location for what I envisioned to be our perfect academy. It was a year-round baseball climate. I wanted a place that had a strong legacy”.

“I wanted to have the demographics such that we impacted as many African-Americans and Latinos as possible. And I wanted to go to a community that would benefit from our being there”.

“But I also wanted a place that could embrace us and bring this dream to fruition.”

If any place deserves a return to its baseball roots, it’s Compton. The Compton High baseball team lost a game 45-0 to Lakewood High this season. Nichols went there, and he and Miller hate to see kids disenchanted by the possibility of losing turn away from baseball.

“That’s when the separation happens – 12, 13,” says Miller, who grew up playing catch with his brother Reggie and sister Cheryl, both eventual basketball stars. “Kids are playing when they’re younger. And then they stop.”

To play basketball or football. Or to end up on the streets.

“There are so many of our kids who have only one opportunity in their community, and that’s to do bad,” Solomon says, “That’s why gangs proliferate. I bet if you do a talent evaluation of the average gang, they have a lot of good athletes. But if a kid is given the opportunity to make the best decision, more often than not, with proper guidance, he will.”

Solomon is banking on Miller to be that guide. When his playing career ended, he scouted for the Angels and spent a few years as their farm director. He dabbled in management with Big League Dreams, a company that builds Little League-sized replicas of major-league stadiums, and had traded ideas with Solomon about the academy’s potential.

Now he glimpses out of his office toward the 186-seat main stadium with a huge grassy knoll down the first-base line. And Miller smiles, because Compton might just have itself the new Jackie Robinson Stadium.

“This academy will succeed,” he says, “because there’s no reason for it not to.”

For the next six years, Cy Wiggs will feel like flypaper for athletic hangers-on. Football coaches will woo him. Basketball coaches will court him. Baseball coaches will try to keep their grip on him, however tenuous it is.

Maybe Cy’s destiny is baseball. His father, Michael Brown, did name him after Cy Young. And now he has the academy.

“This isn’t just a public park or city park,” says Robynne Wiggs, Cy’s mother. “They’ve seen that since they’re two years old. This makes them dream bigger. I bring grown-ups here to pick Cy up, and they’re like, ‘Wow.’ ”

Robynne takes classes at the college next door. She saw flyers on the wall trumpeting a baseball academy and moseyed over to see the hullabaloo. When the enormity of the complex hit her, she signed up Cy and dragged him in from Cerritos, Calif., against his will.

“I thought it was going to be like boot camp,” Cy says. “And then I started to see that it wasn’t so bad. The more I played, the more I liked it.”

Cy settled in at first base, even though he prefers playing catcher. Clumsy as he looked in the field, the bat he wielded ensures his peers wear a cup. At the plate, Cy taps his left foot as a timing mechanism and waggles the bat like he’s Gary Sheffield. When Cy swings on the Little League field, Nichols’ head doesn’t move.

“Nice,” Nichols says.

Cy cracks a line drive.

“See that?” Nichols says.

Another shot lands over the fence, feet from a trailer.

“And he’s only 12.”

Class at Haskell Middle School starts at the end of the month, and while Cy looks forward to time with his friends, he would rather spend his days at the academy.

“They like basketball and football,” Cy says. “It’s like, basketball, you get to do all those moves. And football, you get to hurt people. Baseball?”

He spends 30 seconds thinking, and he comes up with the best answer a 12-year-old can.

“I don’t know,” Cy says. “It’s just better.”