Bringing the game to more kids

By Alden Gonzalez and Mike Radano
Updated: September 22, 2010

PHILADELPHIA — The gathering on the steps of the Marian Anderson Recreation Center in Center City had plenty of star power on a warm Wednesday afternoon.

Ex-Phillies Milt Thompson and Dick Allen were there along with current Phillies second baseman Chase Utley. The city was well-represented, as mayor Michael Nutter made his way south from City Hall to speak, as did Phillies president David Montgomery.

On Wednesday, Major League Baseball, the Phillies and the city of Philadelphia announced plans to build the first multi-site MLB Urban Youth Academy in the area, thus joining similar projects the league has steered in Los Angeles, Houston and South Florida over the past five years.

It should come as no surprise, however, that on a day about building a relationship between baseball and the youth of Philadelphia, it was a junior from William Penn Charter School who stole the show.

“I started playing baseball at the Marian Anderson Rec Center when I was 5 years old,” said Demetrius Jennings, who is exploring a future with The University of Virginia, Duke, North Carolina, Davidson, Johns Hopkins and no fewer than four Ivy League schools.

“Over that time I have grown to love the game. Baseball has provided me with an alternative to the streets. It has opened doors for me both athletically and educationally.

“My goal is to attend medical school and become a doctor. I realize that I have been fortunate to have such a supportive family and an environment to pursue these dreams.”

“I also know that there are thousands of kids like me, who have not been blessed with the same opportunities.

It is my hope that the Philadelphia [Urban] Youth Academy will identify these kids and open the doors of opportunities for them.

“I look forward to the day that I can come back, as Dr. Demetrius Jennings, to mentor the younger kids and give back to the game that has given so much to me.”

The Philadelphia Phillies MLB Urban Youth Academy — costing nearly $3 million, and supported by MLB, the Phillies, the Baseball Tomorrow Fund, the city of Philadelphia and the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania — will be modeled after the initial Urban Youth Academy that resides in Compton, Calif., where thousands of inner-city kids who might have been steered down the wrong path instead turned to the Academy for free year-round baseball, softball and life lessons.

“The mission is to teach kids about life,” said Darrell Miller, who is the director of the Urban Youth Academy in Compton and oversees all four current sites. “It’s about support; any kind of support. Kids today need a mentor.”

“Our goal is to get more of us to pay attention and to help these kids to a higher level. They need leadership. They need role models. They need to know they can do more than they ever thought possible.”

For their part, the Phillies have been eager to support this program.

Montgomery has long been a supporter of baseball in the city and has been a guiding force in all the Phillies’ endeavors.

That said, he is quick to point out that he has received help from inside and outside of the organization.

“I can’t tell you what a thrill it is for the Phillies to be opening this Major League Baseball Youth Academy,” Montgomery said. “We’ve been extremely pleased, because the last 20 years Philadelphia has been one of the most active cities in terms of participation in RBI.”

“RBI stands for ‘Reviving Baseball Inner Cities.’ One of the reasons we are here is the way our city has responded to that program. We’re pleased because this announcement lets us take that commitment to an additional level.

Construction of the Academy will entail a complete renovation and expansion of current facilities, including:

• The creation of two professional-sized fields, both with bleacher seating for up to 500 fans, at the Ashburn Field Complex. One of those will be a show field — complete with scoreboard, dugouts and batting cages — that will serve as the centerpiece.

• Two softball fields, office space for tournament management and amenities such as concessions and a picnic area at the complex.

• Renovated indoor training facilities at the Anderson Recreation Center, featuring batting and pitching cages, a fitness center and classrooms.

• A 10,000-square-foot extension to the South Philadelphia recreation center to provide additional indoor training.

An estimated time of completion has not been set.

The Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program began as a vision in 1989 by former Major League player and scout John Young, who wanted to improve the state of youth baseball in his area and, in turn, use the sport to enhance children’s education.

MLB took control two years later, and today, nearly 300 RBI leagues offer baseball and softball throughout the U.S. and in the Caribbean, with nearly 175,000 kids taking part.

MLB took that RBI concept one step further in 2006, when it built the first Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Another, in Hialeah, Fla., just north of Miami, was then announced in 2009, and Houston’s Academy opened its doors this past April.

Today, Compton’s Academy encompasses 20-plus acres and serves about 2,500 kids, ages 7-17. Twenty-five of those who either played or trained at that Academy were selected in the 2010 First-Year Player Draft, and more than 110 student-athletes have gone on to participate in collegiate baseball and softball programs since the Compton UYA began.

“[Executive vice president of baseball development for Major League Baseball] Jimmie Lee Solomon came to us early on and said, ‘We think Philadelphia would be an ideal home for a Baseball Youth Academy.’” Montgomery said.

“I’d like to thank him for his personal support, and Darrell Miller, who ran the Compton Academy and is now overseeing all of the Academies. Darrell flew across the country on numerous occasions to give us guidance.”

Philly’s Academy will be managed in collaboration with MLB, the Phillies and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. Former pro players and scouts, as well as high school and collegiate coaches, will provide instruction and oversight, as the Academy will offer free programs while supporting thousands of participants of the Phillies RBI program and the Philadelphia Park & Recreation’s baseball and softball programs.

As part of the Academy — available through a membership program — programs will be offered for skill development, physical fitness, coach training and academic support.

Its goal will be to graduate 100 percent of the youth it serves.