Houston UYA brings baseball to urban teens
Wade determined to make extension of RBI program succeed
Middle schools in this urban neighborhood did not offer baseball to students, so those accustomed to playing Little League were forced into a temporary hiatus lifted only when they came of age in high school. For Wade, those three years lost were critical to his development, and likely spelled the difference between his flourishing as a teenager instead of as a sophomore first baseman at Paul Quinn College.
If there was a facility where Wade could have honed his skills as an adolescent, perhaps he might have burnished his abilities at a younger age and blazed an altogether different career path, one completely entrenched in baseball.
Wade could not help but contemplate what might have been as he gushed over what was. As the manager of the Houston Astros Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy, Wade beamed with pride as the seven-month-old facility hosted more than 130 local teenagers in a showcase orchestrated by two dozen scouts representing 26 franchises. When Wade accepted the position as manager of the Houston UYA, he had intimate knowledge of the influence it could have in Acres Homes.
"It's a major impact," Wade said. "There are kids out here who can play. A lot of the volunteers who are involved are former Little Leaguers from this community that I played with back in the day. It's a great impact."
The Houston UYA is the second of its kind developed by MLB, joining an academy built in Compton, Calif., more than four years ago. The Compton UYA has been wildly successful at connecting urban youth with baseball through multiple avenues from the 50 Academy alums playing professional baseball, the 150 who have earned college scholarships, and the 25 umpires and 10 groundskeepers in the Minor Leagues.
Construction has already commenced on a facility in Philadelphia, and an agreement is in place for another in Hialeah, Fla., outside of Miami.
Executive vice president for baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon considers these Academies "bricks-and-mortar" extensions to the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities initiative that began more than 20 years ago. Whereas the RBI program facilitates team construction and tournament competition, these Academies offer facilities where year-round instruction is available and encouraged.
"Urban Americans all need a boost, and our game can provide that," Solomon said. "We're bringing the asset here to them. We're trying to do that all across the country.
"There are only a few of the RBI programs that are actually year-round. So we wanted to put a bricks-and-mortar extension of that RBI program in urban America. This Academy is a bricks-and-mortar extension of RBI. You can touch it, you can feel it, it'll operate and will be open all year long with our program, Junior RBI, fall ball. All of those things need to be brought here, and that will help us even increase those numbers."
That impact was tangible on Saturday when, despite chilly conditions and overcast skies, campers received enthusiastic and detailed instruction exposing the finer points of catching, pitching, hitting, fielding and baserunning. The communication was clear and concise, with participants locked in on scouts offering more than a century of baseball knowledge, a scope reinforced by the uniforms they sported.
Alvin Rittman, the director of the showcase and a Seattle Mariners scout, was the man with the air horn and a penchant for regimentation. When he reached out to the scouting community seeking volunteers for the showcase, he was inundated with eager replies. What Rittman hoped to accomplish was to share his perspective of the game that grabbed his attention years ago, with an aim of igniting a spark within youth with interest -- but perhaps without the wherewithal.
"The instruction is huge," Rittman said. "It's all a part of the development of the player. There is a wealth of showcases out there, but the actual one-on-one instruction these kids get [is vital]. You've got a history of 100-plus years collectively of guys with experience here, so to get this kind of instruction at this particular time is very critical.
"This is where we're losing a lot of the kids in this grassroots stage, so we try to give back. This is the way we try to give back to the community, and for ourselves as well."
What makes Wade most proud is that the instruction offered is free of charge. With so much of the urban youth excluded from the opportunity to play select ball because of the exorbitant fees associated with elite leagues, the Houston UYA should keep the playing field somewhat level. Wade knows firsthand that urban environments aren't necessarily conducive to taking full advantage of every opportunity presented, but he is determined to make sure that everyone in Acres Homes understands that this facility exists and that volunteers are willing.
This past summer, Wade took 14 area kids to Vero Beach, Fla., for a weeklong instructional camp hosted by five-time All-Star and 1977 National League Most Valuable Player George Foster. Wade was sure to point out that his contingent represented half of the total campers on hand, a figure that represents his optimism and the potential for growth.
"This thing can't fail," Wade said. "I have an assistant general manager here, I have almost all of the Astros' scouts here -- they've been here already. We've had former players here; we had [1991 Hall of Fame inductee] Rod Carew here in May when we first opened up. So the sky is the limit. We're going to make this thing work."