HOUSTON -- The silver shovels and white hardhats worn by the dignitaries as they ceremoniously moved the first pieces of dirt at the groundbreaking for the Houston Astros' MLB Urban Youth Academy at Sylvester Turner Park on Friday afternoon symbolized years of planning and hard work.
The MLB Urban Youth Academy, which will be the second of its kind in the country, will be operational in less than a year, but that's when the hard work really begins -- fostering the development of inner-city kids through free year-round baseball and softball instruction at a top-notch facility.
Major League Baseball, the Astros and the Houston Parks and Recreation Department broke ground on the MLB Urban Youth Academy, which joins the facility in Compton, Calif., as the second of its kind. Officials from Major League Baseball, the Astros and state and local politicians were on hand to participate in the groundbreaking in Houston's Acres Homes community.
"The Commissioner challenged us to make sure his urban initiative came to fruition," said Major League Baseball executive vice president of baseball operations Jimmie Lee Solomon, a Houston-area native. "I think we can have facilities across the country pretty soon. That's what we've been trying to do -- bring baseball back to urban America."
Solomon said MLB hopes to break ground on its next academy next year in Hialeah, Fla., with academies in Philadelphia and Milwaukee in the planning stages. The goal is to have similar academies in all MLB cities, Solomon said.
"I think most teams are very interested in it, and most teams are very interested in giving back to the community," he said. "Baseball in urban America has been less than magnanimous. We're going to help it and get it started because baseball is an expensive sport.
"As schools decide not to have baseball as part of their programs, the facilities don't get kept up, the equipment doesn't get renewed and the programs start to die out. We've got to get back into urban America, because a lot of kids are taking opportunities to play other sports."
Major League Baseball and the Astros contributed $600,000 to the construction of the facility, which equaled the contributions by both the City of Houston and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
The facility will feature a show field complete with scoreboards, permanent seating for 500 fans (expandable to 1,800), dugouts and lights. There will be on auxiliary field, two Little League/softball fields and batting cages, with 1,500 square feet of office space for other facilities.
"This park says to these kids, 'You have can have the best because you are the best and you can be all that you can be,'" said Turner, a Texas state representative who grew up in Acres Homes. "This park says to our children that there are a lot of people that are willing to invest in you, and today we make a down payment on your future and your lives."
The Houston Astros MLB Urban Youth Academy will staff local high school, collegiate and current and former professional players to help run the different Major League-caliber training camps and clinics throughout the year. It will offer programs to a minimum of 2,500 youth.
Additional instructors, college coaches, scouts and certified athletic trainers will also work with young athletes at the academy, which will have year-round free enrollment.
"We're really excited about it," Astros present of business operations Pam Gardner said. "We're very competitive here in Houston, so we're hopeful this will become the premier facility in the country. It's great, because it's in the center of the country, and we're hopeful lots of folks will come and take a look at our model.
"The coming together of so many groups is what made this so tremendous. There's a real commitment from so many people that this thing will work. And it will."
The academy is modeled after the first Urban Youth Academy, which opened in 2006 in Compton. More than 75 student-athletes have been drafted since its inception, with 49 signing professional contracts and 76 going to college to participate in baseball and softball programs.
"I think we'll do even better than that here because there's good, solid RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities) programs like there is in L.A., and kids have a better chance of playing year-round. And there are a lot of good athletes playing baseball," said Darrell Miller, director of the Urban Youth Academy. "Academically and athletically, a lot of our kids are getting focused on other sports because there's not that scholarship opportunity, or the skill level hasn't been developed enough. That's what we're all about."
The Astros are committed to be hands-on with the operation of the academy and will hire a director. Astros president of baseball operations Tal Smith, general manager Ed Wade and assistant general managers Ricky Bennett, David Gottfried and Bobby Heck were in attendance at the groundbreaking ceremony.
"Our entire front office is invested in this program," Gardner said.
Astros interim manager Dave Clark, first-base coach Jose Cruz and players Michael Bourn, LaTroy Hawkins and Wesley Wright were also in attendance. Bob Watson, baseball's vice president of on-field operations and a former Astros player, was also on hand.
"I think it's real beneficial to see some of us come out and talk to them and play with them, and maybe it will inspire some of them to do something good with their lives," Bourn said. "You never know what you're going to be in life when you're that young. You're just out there doing stuff, like I was doing. Hopefully one of them will make it and become a Major Leaguer one day."
Miller expects the academy to be up and running by the spring and fully operational later in the year, weather permitting.
"It's real exciting because we've been dreaming about this and planning it," Miller said. "We're just one step closer, and we're really confident the construction process, depending on the weather, is going to move very, very quickly. If we can just keep the rain out of here for a couple of months, we'll be ready to roll in the springtime.
"The kids are having an opportunity because it's a great park in the first place. The kids know we care about them, but we'll be able to give them really good instruction and really supportive education programs. We're going to get them focused on what they need to do.
"Hopefully we'll do what we've done in Compton and have showcases and scout the players throughout all of Houston, just to give kids some more chances to be exposed to the higher-end scouts and player development people that are out there."
Brian McTaggart is a reporter for MLB.com.