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Sun shines on final day of Urban Invitational

HOUSTON -- The weather finally cooperated on Sunday, but it was a little too late. The final day of the fifth annual Urban Invitational took place with an open roof at Minute Maid Park, a pleasant surprise following two days of rain that forced a change in plans and venue for the tournament.

The first and third days of the tourney were originally scheduled for Sylvester Turner Park, the site of Major League Baseball's local Urban Youth Academy, but the rain was the only hitch in an event that brought exposure to baseball programs at historically black colleges and universities.

Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, said that he was thrilled with the way the tournament went and excited for the future implications for the sport.

"Despite the weather, we're really pleased," he said. "The teams competed well, and it's hard for people to be at their best when they haven't played for eight months. Ultimately, the mission was accomplished, and we're already brainstorming about how we can make it better next year."

The Urban Invitational was in Houston for the first time this season, and the presence of a retractable roof at Minute Maid Park may have saved some games from being cancelled.

By this time next year, Major League Baseball will likely have new Urban Youth Academies in New Orleans and Philadelphia, but Houston is still the favorite to host the next Urban Invitational.

"We'd like to do it here again, because we think it works," said Miller. "We really wanted to play some games at Sylvester Turner, and we were trying to save it so we could play there today. But we walked the field and it was underwater, so we felt like it was too dangerous. It rained again last night out there, and when that happened, we definitely knew we had made the right decision."

This year's edition of the tournament featured an expanded field of six teams, and the games at a big-league venue were the first in the five-year history of the event. The middle day of the tourney featured a college fair, a battle of the bands and performances by two famous singers.

Despite the best-laid plans, though, one of the best features of the tournament was a relative surprise. Big league stars Chris Young and Justin Upton were in attendance on Saturday, and Miller said that kind of appearance could go a long way in making an impression.

"It was huge to have those guys come here," he said. "The influence of current Major League players is so instrumental in giving kids the inspiration to play the game. For those guys to fly themselves here and take time out of their schedules -- they're going to Spring Training today -- speaks volumes about the passion they have for the game and their desire to inspire the youths that are following them. These guys made themselves available to everyone. I mean, they were in the crowd and signing autographs. They weren't in some secluded VIP area. That was a great thing."

Indeed it was, and it helped mark the progress of Major League Baseball's initiatives in the inner city. The league already operates academies in Puerto Rico and Compton, Calif., and the next one in New Orleans is expected to open in July. A new academy in south Florida could be ready for the 2014 season, and there are exploratory plans for future facilities in Cincinnati and San Francisco.

The college teams didn't get to see the complex at Sylvester Turner Park, but they understand the implications it could have on the future of baseball. Roger Cador, legendary coach for Southern University, said that he looks forward to the opening of the academy in New Orleans.

"I think they made a wise decision going in there. Watch in five or six years with the [First-Year Player] Draft and the kids that come out of that place," he said. "I noticed this year that there are more younger African-Americans playing baseball in New Orleans than I've seen in quite a while. I think it's going to be fruitful, and it's going to produce some players. They've got athletes there that just need to be taught and have someone show interest in them. That had never happened before."

"I think it will affect us in a positive light," added Grambling State coach James Cooper of the New Orleans academy. "With Hurricane Katrina happening and so many kids relocating -- so many facilities going downhill -- it's going to get those people to come back out and watch baseball. Any time you have Major League Baseball affiliated with an area, there can only be improvement."

Miller said he hoped to involve both Southern and Grambling coaches and players in summer camps and clinics at the future New Orleans academy, and he also said that he hoped local kids would be able to pay that favor back by finding their way onto rosters at those schools.

Major League Baseball has received ample support from the community at each of its inner-city academies, a trend it hopes will follow suit in the future. And who knows? If everything works out, one day, each of them could take turns hosting future incarnations of the Urban Invitational.

"We're going to avoid New Orleans next year because of the Super Bowl being there -- and because of Mardi Gras," said Miller. "Lord willing, we could move it there the following year. We're building a really nice stadium there, and it can accommodate this type of crowd and this type of event relatively easily. Plus, we'll have Astro-Turf, so weather won't be as much of a factor. It will drain very well."