Major-league victory for Houston in Acres Homes

By Brian McTaggart
Updated: January 25, 2009

HOUSTON — A little more than three years ago, the 27-acre park on West Little York was nothing more than a green field surrounded by trees and covered with more than its share of weeds.

The former West Little York Park was capable of providing so much more for the Acres Homes community; at least that was the belief of state Rep. Sylvester Turner, D-Houston.

“This was an open field, and we turned it into a field of dreams,” Turner said of the park that bears his name and has three pristine baseball fields and a jogging trail. “It turned into a family park with hundreds of kids playing baseball. The next question was: How do we take it to the next level?”

The answer was getting Texas, Houston, Major League Baseball and the Astros involved in helping Sylvester Turner Park become the site of the Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Baseball Academy, only the second such facility of its kind in the nation.

The academy, which was announced at a news conference Friday, will provide year-round free baseball and softball instruction to area youths age 7-17. MLB hopes it will be operational by the end of the year and will help baseball make inroads back into the inner city.

MLB opened its first academy in Compton, Calif., in 2006 and has signed an agreement to build one in Hialeah, Fla. Academies in Philadelphia, New Orleans and Cleveland are in the design stage.

“Our idea is to get kids in America to combine their athleticism with their education,” said Darrell Miller, who operates the academy in Compton. “It lets our children and people that attend the academy understand there are so many opportunities the game of baseball can provide.”

Baseball and political dignitaries were on hand to unveil the plans for the academy, including Turner, Houston Mayor Bill White, Astros owner Drayton McLane and several members of his front office and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson.

“This is the roots of baseball,” Robinson said. “Kids in the inner cities have been playing basketball and football, but these kids have many interests and baseball hasn’t been as inviting.”

Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB’s executive vice president of baseball operations, said the goal is to open an academy near every city that has a major league team.

Solomon’s relationship with Turner — they were classmates at Harvard — helped get an academy placed in Houston. They met last summer to discuss the project and soon involved the Astros.

Funds from state and city

The state and the city each is contributing $600,000 to help build additional facilities, and the Astros and MLB are adding another $600,000. Solomon said the annual budget to run the academy will be about $400,000. The Astros and MLB signed a 10-year joint operating agreement.

The plans are to build a second full baseball field to go with the two existing youth fields.

The Astros will be in charge of running the facility and will hire a full-time staff of two people. The academy will staff local high school, college, current and former pro players and interns to run training camps and clinics.

Among the off-the-field activities offered will be seminars on umpiring, field management, scouting and player development, public relations and sports training.

“We have a three-pronged curriculum,” Solomon said. “First is baseball instruction. Then there’s vocational instruction, like groundskeeping and umpiring. And there’s an educational component, and we’ll have tutors on site.”

More than 6,000 kids have gone through the Compton academy, 49 of them have signed pro contracts and 76 have gone on to participate in college baseball and softball programs.

“We’re trying to get to the kids who live in this area who don’t understand baseball and want to make this more of a commitment,” Miller said. “In Compton, people drive from everywhere to come to the academy. The idea is to get everyone playing together.”