HOUSTON -- Cameron Lavergne was 11 when she walked into the Astros Youth Academy shortly after it opened in 2010. In recent years, she has made the transition from participant to coach and mentor for the next generation. In that way, she represents everything the Astros envision for the facility.
“I want these kids to look up to me the way I looked up to those that helped me when I was here,” she said. “The academy did a great job of molding me not only into a great softball player, but also to be a good citizen and a contributor to society in a positive way.”
Thanks, in part, to a scholarship from Major League Baseball’s RBI (Reviving Baseball in Inner-cities) program, Lavergne received a degree in civil engineering from Prairie View A&M University last spring and is about to start graduate school.
Daryl Wade, the academy’s director, said her continuing commitment to staying involved is one of the sidebar stories to a spectacular success story.
Before Covid-19 forced a shutdown of the academy, more than 10,000 young people participated in its programs every year, and the academy’s RBI teams have been some of the most successful in the country.
“These young people that have been through here, they keep coming back,” Wade said. “They just feel a connection.”
Or as Lavergne puts it: “He’s Uncle Daryl to me. You are made to feel you’re part of a larger family.”
That is precisely what Jim Crane had in mind when he bought the Astros in 2011 and began expanding the Astros Foundation through corporate partnerships and his own donations.
Back then, he promised the Astros would be a good citizen of the community as they built a winning baseball team. On that, he has delivered.
“When I purchased the team, we had about $30,000 in our Foundation,” Crane said, “and our programs were not having a long-term impact. I was committed that the Astros and our Foundation would have a long-term impact on our community, and we would make meaningful impact.
“To date, we have grown and have provided over $50 million worth of investment into community programs.”
• 50,000 kids have participated in academy programs since 2012.
• 131 have received college scholarships.
• 34,000 uniforms have been provided.
• Six players from the academy have been selected in the MLB Draft.
In 2019, the Astros Youth Academy had 11,321 kids signed up. And 8,214 uniforms were provided to area youth baseball and softball programs. Forty-one kids received scholarships.
In addition, the Astros have done work on a dozen parks in the area to make them baseball ready and expanded a program of clinics, summer camps and academic support. For Crane, it was personal.
“Baseball was very important to my development,” he said. “Playing baseball made me a lot more confident and comfortable in my ability to achieve things. I’d like to be able to help more kids get the opportunities I had through baseball.”
Last spring -- again, before the closure -- the Astros opened a $3-million education wing named for the late Bob Watson that included classrooms, computer labs and new locker rooms.
“We use the term Major League citizens,” Wade said. “One of our goals is to get them into baseball or softball, and then to help them get a better life.
“The kids playing pro ball is icing on the cake for us. Our main thing is to help them get out of high school and hopefully into a college. We’ve got kids from all parts of the city, socially, economically. I think these kids learn from each other. Our kids get along. They play well together. I think their parents know that we care about the kids.”
One of those participants was Dash Johnson, a senior at Northwestern State University (Oklahoma). His RBI teams went to a regional tournament three straight years and to the RBI World Series twice.
“People there are amazing,” Johnson said, “and what they’re doing is from the heart. They taught me lessons outside of baseball that will stick with me forever. Baseball ends at some point, but the lessons I've learned there have helped me so much and will translate through my life.”
Johnson praises the work of a variety of instructors, including Wade’s top assistant, Duane Stelly. Another influential person he met at the academy is Brian White, the full-time baseball coach at Prairie View.
“He’s a mentor,” Johnson said. “He’s always there when I need somebody to talk to, or when I when I just want to go talk about baseball.”
Tyrese Clayborne, a senior at Texas Southern, is one of those who still returns to the academy to work out or just catch up with some of the dozens of instructors, many of them youth baseball coaches in the Houston area.
“You know, they don't only teach us the baseball side,” Clayborne said. “They teach us lessons we can use in life, the tool you need to succeed. I think I’m a better person because of the experience.”
Crane is effusive in his praise of the foundation’s corporate donors and of the work of dozens of volunteer coaches, instructors and tutors at the academy.
“This community has rallied around the Astros, and we have rallied around them,” he said. “Our commitment to underprivileged communities will remain an anchor for us. We will also continue to grow our volunteer efforts, our partnerships with schools, and we will continue to use our voice to raise awareness on the needs of our community.”
Richard Justice has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2011. Follow him on Twitter at @RichardJustice.