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ACE program not short on success stories

With life on streets a threat, White Sox keeping young ballplayers focused

CHICAGO -- Not all days are created equal.

For Lorenzo Elion III, who heads into his senior season at Simeon Career Academy, one of the biggest came along six years ago, when he was 11. It was his tryout for a spot in the White Sox Amateur City Elite baseball program, which seemed like a long shot. After all, he had started playing baseball only within the last year.

"I was pretty nervous,'' Elion said. "It was my first tryout, people watching me. I didn't know what to expect. Other kids had been playing since they were 6 or 7. I'd been playing nine months, and I went to that tryout.''

Elion was at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday, playing shortstop in the eighth annual Double Duty Classic, an All-Star Game for inner-city players. There's no way to know where he would have been had he been too timid to go to that tryout, or if his talent and willingness to learn hadn't stood out.

Elion lives in the Chicago community of Englewood, which ranks high on the list of the city's troubled neighborhoods. He's lost more friends than he can count to gang life; his devotion to baseball is his means to survival.

"Baseball's really my way out,'' Elion said. "The way my schedule is, it keeps me away from all the gangs, everything negative. Going to school, going to practice, going to games -- there's really no time to sit around thinking about something to do. I'm always busy.''

Elion was drawn to baseball by the game's difficulty.

"You rarely find kids in my type of neighborhood that want to grow up and be a baseball player,'' said Elion, who is sorting through scholarship offers, including interest from Northern Illinois University and Lewis University. "Everybody wants to be a Michael Jordan or a Barry Sanders. Nobody wants to be a baseball player. Anyone can pick up a ball and shoot. But not many can pick up a bat and square up a 95-mph fastball. It's pretty rare. Most people hate challenges, so they don't go for this sport. They think it's too hard.''

Kevin Coe, the White Sox director of youth baseball initiatives, has fallen in love with Elion's approach through the years.

"He works his tail off,'' Coe said. "He is the epitome of hard work.''

White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, acting largely on a recommendation by Chicago-based scout Nathan Durst, established the ACE program to help develop and showcase teenage baseball players from the inner city and lower-economic neighborhoods. It operates 11 months out of the year and emphasizes scholastics and social development as well as baseball.

Blake Hickman, a right-hander from the University of Iowa, was drafted in the seventh round by the White Sox a few weeks ago after participating in the ACE program. But more than developing players for professional baseball, the program is designed to help prepare players to attend college.

Video: [email protected]: Coleman on the White Sox A.C.E. program

Ninety athletes associated with the ACE program have received aid to play baseball in college since it was established in 2007. Perhaps the best known are Ronell Coleman Jr., a 5-foot-5 outfielder who batted leadoff for Vanderbilt in the College World Series last month, and University of Louisville right fielder Corey Ray, who is considered a possible first-round selection for the 2016 MLB Draft.

They serve as role models for the high school juniors and seniors who were on the field on Wednesday.

"Ro's dad coached me on my first baseball team,'' said catcher A.J. Lewis, who has committed to play at the University of Missouri. "To see him go to the SEC and have success at a very young age, it just inspired me that I can do the same exact thing. That's probably the best baseball conference in the country right now. For him to show that from the South Side of Chicago you can go and do great things and compete with guys from Texas and California, it really spoke volumes to me.''

Lewis, whose Mt. Carmel High team lost in the Class 4A Illinois championship game last month, also plays football.

"In playing football and baseball, I like to consider myself a competitor,'' Lewis said. "I go out there and compete. You can put anybody out there against me. I don't care about the size, ranking, anything. I'm going to go out there and compete against them, give it my all.''

Lewis lost his mother, Airree Lewis, to breast cancer when he was 10. He has continued the pursuit of success with help from his father, Alfred Lewis, other relatives and his coaches.

Video: White Sox participate in ACE signing day

"I'm surrounded by great coaches,'' Lewis said. "To have my father, my aunt and grandmother -- those who care for me truly -- try to take the place of my mother, I'm truly blessed. I'm in a good situation.''

You might not say the same thing about Elion or anyone else growing up in Englewood, but the ACE program is making a difference.

"It's what keeps me out of the streets,'' Elion said. "Baseball is the only positive thing that will keep me away from the violence.''

Elion had a run-scoring single, a stolen base and scored a run for the West in a 7-2 loss to the East. He'd love nothing more than to one day be back at U.S. Cellular in another uniform, playing in the Major Leagues.

"I'm trying to go all the way,'' Elion said. "Putting in all this work, why stop?"

Phil Rogers is a columnist for
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