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Urban Youth Academy makes deep impact

Nearly 2,000 kids in Houston area have benefited from Astros' community program

HOUSTON -- In four years, almost 2,000 kids have been impacted. For the Houston Astros, that's the bottom line on its Urban Youth Academy.

Some success stories are more obvious than others. For instance, there's the kid who showed up one sweltering summer day and asked if someone would hit him a few ground balls.

He had very few baseball skills. He had heart, though, and desire.

"That first day, I worried he was going to get hurt," said Daryl Wade, the academy's director.

No more.

"Nathaniel Crawford is his name," Wade said, "and he might be the poster boy for us."

He's about to graduate in the top third of his class at nearby Wheatley High School, and college coaches have invited him to summer tryout camps as they sort through their scholarship options.

Crawford is also getting some television time, too, as one of the bat boys for his hometown Major League team.

"It can be a life-changing experience to see a young person develop," Wade said.

That's why it's only partly about baseball.

Major League Baseball opened the first of five academies in Compton, Calif., in 2006. One aspect of their mission was to get more African-American kids involved in baseball.

But there's an assortment of other services, from SAT-prep classes to educational and vocational programs dealing with a variety of topics.

Academies have since opened in New Orleans and Houston, with facilities in Cincinnati and Philadelphia getting their finishing touches.

Between 5,000 and 10,000 kids will attend programs annually at the facilities, said Ben Baroody, MLB's manager of baseball development.

This summer, the Houston academy will have a class on how to get into broadcasting and journalism, and boys and girls from 7 to 17 will be reminded that there are thousands of jobs available at every level of baseball.

Some of Wade's kids in Houston have landed internships with the Astros, and his assistant, Brandon Denton, was recently named the Astros' community relations manager.

"I grew up thinking the only way I could be in pro ball was to play," Wade said. "I could have been in sales, corporate sponsorships, broadcasting. There's so much that can be done in baseball."

Now about the baseball.

More than 100 players from the academies have been taken in the First-Year Player Draft, and five of them have reached the Major Leagues. Another 300 baseball and softball players have gotten college scholarships thanks, in part, to their time at the academies.

"What we're trying to do -- and what we have done -- is provide kids all the opportunity the baseball industry can provide," Baroody said. "We're not only trying to develop Major League players. We're trying to provide Major League contributors to society. Whether they have natural ability or not, we want them to be able to be a benefit to their communities.

"We have baseball and softball instruction, but we've had players go on to jobs in front offices. We offer classes on umpiring, groundskeeping, broadcasting. We really provide a well-rounded platform of resources."

Wade, 56, had a long, distinguished resume as a coach, administrator and teacher in the Houston area when former Astros owner Drayton McLane hired him to run the newly opened academy in 2010.

It's located in an area of North Houston called Acres Homes, which, coincidentally, is where Wade grew up, where his father still lives.

"I love this community," Wade said. "I played Little League baseball, and I saw the building coming together. I saw there was a true need for baseball. Kids need a carrot. I think there are a lot of kids who missed out on an opportunity to play baseball because they didn't have the opportunity in the Houston area. That's what we're changing."

He oversees a complex that has two indoor hitting cages, two beautifully manicured full-sized baseball diamonds and two Little League fields. Boys and girls take part in daily clinics, as well as summer camps.

Kids from as far away as the Dallas suburbs have attended the summer camps. Wade took a group of kids to Vero Beach, Fla., for clinics and will take another this summer to the Junior Olympics in Florida. Amid all the baseball, there are also life skills classes and trips to Astros games.

The Astros Foundation funds the academy, and the city of Houston keeps the diamonds baseball-ready. Astros owner Jim Crane made the facility one of his first stops after buying the club. His manager, Bo Porter, has spent hours here running clinics. Astros scouting director Mike Elias has been a presence as well.

"I'm so proud of the kids who have grown through the program," Wade said. "When we first opened, our nucleus was our 12- and 13-year-old kids. Now we have some kids that will be seniors next year. There were growing pains.But the kids that dedicated themselves to it, I'm proud of them."

Richard Justice is a columnist for Read his blog, Justice4U.
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