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MLB sees diversity grow in Draft's first night

SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Major League Baseball has followed up its most diverse Draft in two decades with a fitting encore. Seven African-Americans were drafted in the first round in 2012, the most since 1992, and six more players of African-American descent were drafted in the first round Thursday.

Two graduates of the Urban Youth Academy -- Dominic Smith and J.P. Crawford -- were the highlights in that group, and both young men were selected within the first 16 picks. Shortstop Tim Anderson also was drafted 17th overall, and three more African-American draftees were taken by the end of the round.

Why is that noteworthy? An MLB Diversity report released earlier this season said that 8.5 percent of players on Opening Day rosters are of African-American descent, and Major League Baseball has made an effort to change the complexion of the game in recent seasons. The Urban Youth Academies and RBI leagues -- short for Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities -- have made a difference, and broadcaster Harold Reynolds is thrilled to see it.

"It's a great thing to see that many kids playing. It's been a big struggle," said Reynolds, a former big league second baseman who called the Draft for MLB Network Thursday night. "We've always said that they're playing; we just haven't gotten the exposure. I think we're getting them in front of scouts with the RBI program and all of the different things out there. They're playing more travel ball. We're getting real aggressive, and I think it's paying off. This is just scratching the surface."

Prior to 2012, the last MLB Draft to feature more African-American players occurred all the way back in 1992, when 10 of the first 28 players were African-American. The second overall selection in 2012 -- Byron Buxton -- is African-American, as were three other players within the first 20 picks.

Smith, a power-hitting outfielder and first baseman, and Crawford, a smooth-fielding shortstop, hail from Los Angeles, and both competed in RBI Leagues and at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Crawford credited the Compton academy with helping him gain exposure and with helping him refine his skills at shortstop, and Smith played in two editions of the RBI World Series.

A generation ago, the Urban Youth Academy concept didn't even exist. The first academy opened in Puerto Rico last decade, and similar facilities in Compton, Houston and New Orleans followed suit. Major League Baseball has four more academies that are currently being built, and the goal is to have a facility in every big league city that provides free baseball instruction to inner-city youth.

Smith and Crawford are at the forefront of that movement, and Reynolds hopes to see many more academy graduates make it to the professional ranks in the future.

"The Urban Youth Academy has helped it, and also RBI as a whole," he said. "Junior RBI started with 50,000 kids and it's already up to 100,000. It's only two years old. You've got the regular RBI program that plays a World Series that the Commissioner goes to. All those things are important."

The Cincinnati Reds selected outfielder Phil Ervin with the 27th pick, and prep second baseman Travis Demeritte went to Texas with the 30th pick. Aaron Judge, an outfielder from Fresno State University, was drafted by the Yankees on Thursday, and the diversity trend continued after the opening round.

Josh Hart, a prep outfielder from Parkview, Ga., was taken in the first Competitive Balance Round, and right-handed pitcher Clinton Hollon headlined a group of African-Americans taken in the second round. Baseball still has work to do, said Reynolds, but it's still nice to see some progress.

"The game needs to get more athletic," said Reynolds. "We get caught up in all these stats and who's going to walk and go base to base. We lost the athlete in the game. It's a big night. I'm excited."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for