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MLB, New Orleans break ground on UYA

NEW ORLEANS -- It's hard to picture it now, with its worn-out grass, collapsing fences and nearly invisible backstop, but Wesley Barrow Stadium used to be a haven for youth baseball -- before Hurricane Katrina ravaged it with catastrophic flooding.

"This is where you came to play," is how Rangers manager Ron Washington remembers the place he grew up five minutes away from and often played at as a teenager.

That's why Washington -- a New Orleans man through and through -- took time out of a busy schedule to return to his home city and witness the beginning of Wesley Barrow Stadium's re-emergence on Wednesday morning.

There, below two white tents in the middle of a field that has been basically untouched since the devastating hurricane of 2005, Major League Baseball and the city of New Orleans held a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a new Urban Youth Academy that will refurbish Wesley Barrow Stadium and the corresponding Pontchartrain Park it resides in.

Five years ago, when MLB began its concept of Urban Youth Academies -- year-round facilities that provide free baseball, softball and hope -- the goal was to eventually have a UYA in every Major League city.

New Orleans, of course, doesn't qualify as one.

But an exception had to be made in this case.

"The devastation that had befallen this community twice -- the oil spill, as well as Katrina -- had left this neighborhood, but also this city and this region, just basically on the precipice of disaster," MLB executive vice president of baseball development Jimmie Lee Solomon said. "And many of them thought that no one was going to help them; the kids had no facilities to play in, there were no programs that would allow youth to make themselves better. So I thought that what we should do was figure out a way to be more creative and to be more forward-thinking."

Solomon, carrying out MLB Commissioner Bud Selig's vision of incorporating these UYAs, was joined at the official groundbreaking ceremony by Washington, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, former Major League outfielder and current New Orleans Zephyrs broadcaster Ron Swoboda, and several other dignitaries in a one-hour news conference.

The New Orleans UYA is expected to cost $5.3 million and be finished by the summer of 2012.

By that point, Pontchartrain Park -- one of Landrieu's "100 Committed Projects" for reviving the city -- should be completely renovated, with a baseball, softball and tee-ball field, scoreboards, seating, dugouts, lights, batting cages, practice pitching mounds and several other Major League-style training facilities.

"The facility will be such a first-class facility that everybody will want to be here," Solomon said.

In about a year, 1,500 local kids looking to take part in the game but lacking the resources to do so will finally get their chance.

"This is not one of the richest areas in the country, so kids find other things to do," Washington said. "So I'm very pleased that Major League Baseball, in association with the recreation department here in New Orleans, came together and got to some conclusion to get this off the ground."

MLB already has UYAs in Compton, Calif., Houston and Puerto Rico, and has others planned for Philadelphia and South Florida. The goal in each of them is the same: Get kids off the streets and into baseball to help enrich their lives.

In Texas, California and Puerto Rico -- the only one of the three that is a full-on high school and not just an after-school, weekend and summer program -- the UYAs focus on baseball and softball, but also offer clinics on umpiring, field maintenance, broadcasting and several other careers geared towards the game.

Landrieu knew how those other Academies helped revitalize the areas they're stationed in, so he wanted some of New Orleans' FEMA recovery dollars to be spent on bringing one to his city.

Two years of negotiations later, here it comes.

"This area's completely devastated after Katrina," Landrieu said. "I mean, there was nothing. And so it needs [a facility] like this so we can really give people hope in a sense that now you can actually take an area that has been devastated and turn it into something great. [This is] very important to the future of the city of New Orleans."

The Academy will operate in partnership with the New Orleans Recreation Development Commission in hopes of carrying out the success of its UYA predecessors.

Since opening the Compton Academy in 2006, 115 participants have been selected in the First-Year Player Draft, 60 have signed professional contracts and more than 200 have participated in collegiate baseball and softball programs.

In New Orleans, a UYA can accomplish two things: Get kids off the streets and into baseball, and help continue to revitalize a proud and historic city.

Washington knows how much it can mean to the place where he grew up. That's why he decided to attend the ceremony and give a heartfelt speech in the middle of a pennant race.

"One thing you can't do is destroy the spirit of New Orleans," Washington said. "You may knock us down, but we'll figure out a way to get back up. And this is the start of getting back up for the youth of New Orleans."