Smith, Crawford products of MLB's youth initiatives
Close friends, new draftees honed baseball skills through UYA, RBI programs
SECAUCUS, N.J. -- Dominic Smith and J.P. Crawford are products of Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiatives, given a helping hand in taking them from a baseball field in Compton, Calif., to a "dream" day on Thursday. Now the close friends are on the path to becoming National League rivals.
"I'm very proud of you," Smith told Crawford, as they shared a big hug on the floor at MLB Network's Studio 42. "We're always going to be brothers, no matter what."
Both players were selected in the first round of the 2013 First-Year Player Draft, Smith by the Mets at No. 11 overall and Crawford by the Phillies at No. 16. They credited UYA and RBI for this moment they got to share with their families, both getting the chance to shake hands with Commissioner Bud Selig, under whose leadership the initiatives began.
"They mean a ton," Smith said of UYA and RBI. "They exposed me to so much baseball and got me to this point. Without them, I wouldn't even be here. They exposed me with the scholarship, the traveling, baseball around the world. It has taken me to places like China, Florida, Arizona, I could keep naming them all. Without that exposure, I don't think I would be here today."
"If it wasn't for them, I wouldn't be where I am now," Crawford said. "When I first started going there at the age of 12, they helped me out with all the little things about baseball, all the fundamentals. Then I started getting exposed out there, so they helped me out with that, too."
It continues an emerging pipeline to the pros for the MLB initiatives. Just last year, Carlos Correa was the first overall Draft pick by Houston, out of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy. Seeing Smith and Crawford selected as attendees brought to mind the 2008 Draft, when outfielder Aaron Hicks, also from the UYA in Compton, was in attendance at Studio 42 and was selected 14th overall by the Twins.
"It takes a village to do this, so we're just pleased that they saw the value of what we do, but we're also pleased that they had the real commitment in their hearts to play the game like it needs to be played -- and to be open to learning," said Darrell Miller, MLB vice president of youth and facility development. "We're just happy. It does validate the Commissioner's vision and his support, all the things he and Frank Robinson are trying to do. These young men are a product of the program.
"We're really anxious for Houston to start bearing fruit -- it takes a couple of years. And then for New Orleans, and then some of the other academies. I think it works really well when we team up with the RBI program, to be able to catalyze that development of the young men and women. This has been a great thing. All who are behind this get it, and their undying support to making these academies possible, with a lot more on the drawing board, in Washington, D.C., Miami, Cincinnati, Detroit, Milwaukee, San Francisco and San Diego. There are so many people who want an academy now . . . Boston, Baltimore.
"The world's starting to understand that kids need the support on a day-to-day basis," Miller added. "They need the commitment. They need to know that people are there who care and they are there to mentor these young men and women, on and off the field, the way these two were."
Smith and Crawford spent a long day sightseeing in New York and then were filled with nervous anticipation in the third-base dugout on the Draft floor along with seven other top prospects: Tim Anderson, Nick Ciuffo, Ian Clarkin, Jon Denny, Clint Frazier, Aaron Judge and Billy McKinney.
"They're baseball brothers, especially Domo," Crawford said. "We grew up together. So that's a big part for me. It's hard to believe it's actually here. Before that, months earlier, we were like, 'Dang, we're going to make it.' Now it's finally here."
"I've known him since I was 11," Smith said. "We've been brothers together, played baseball together, and just happy to be here together."
Right before the Draft, Crawford, the shortstop from Lakewood (Calif.) High, said, "This whole day has been really exciting, and I'm a little nervous. I'm mostly anxious, just to get it over with, to know where I'm going next."
Now they know. And they look forward to a friendly rivalry, just like they debated who was the best-dressed at Studio 42 in the dugout.
"This is probably one of the best experiences of my whole life. I wouldn't trade it for the whole world," Smith said. "I'm just thankful that MLB reached out and invited me to the Draftbecause this has been a dream since I was a kid.
"Being a kid playing in a park, just at home playing with friends, I wanted to be a professional, but right now it's really hitting me. It's kind of still surreal. It's unbelievable where I am today. It's amazing -- I've got to thank God, because without Him I wouldn't be here."
Darryl Strawberry was one of the two club reps at the Mets' table. They share a definite bond, as it brought back memories of when the Mets drafted a young slugger from Crenshaw High.
"He is from a couple miles of me," Smith said. "He told me, 'Just take it all in. It's your day.'"
What a day it was.
There was Smith and Crawford during the morning, seated on the top of a double-decker tour bus in Manhattan, taking in the scenery and learning about the architecture and legends. There they were at the MLB Fan Cave, sitting on a couch with the other eight prospects, listening attentively as MLB Network analyst and former No. 2 overall Draft pick Harold Reynolds gave them five points to think about in their careers ahead.
There they were at Yankee Stadium, sitting in the Bronx Bombers' dugout, then walking through the tunnel into the Yankees' clubhouse. Smith gazed out at the locker of No. 24, Robinson Cano, one of his favorite players along with Carlos Gonzalez of the Rockies.
While walking through Monument Park at Yankee Stadium, Smith stopped and got up close to the Joe DiMaggio plaque, rubbing it perhaps for luck. He breathed in the moment.
"You see the beautiful palace that the Yankees have, it's great," Smith said in Monument Park. "It's amazing. There are a million words, a trillion words, to describe this place, and I'm speechless."
Exactly one week before the Draft, Smith led Junipero Serra High School of Los Angeles to the California State Division 3 baseball title. In the finale, he struck out nine in 6 1/3 innings while walking three times (two intentional) and hitting a single. He had batted .514 with three homers and 19 RBIs in his first 13 games of this season. It has been a steady rise.
During the morning bus tour, his godfather, among those family members in attendance, had told MLB.com, "I remember when he was a little boy and I put a baseball in his hand. He just took to it."
Add Anderson, taken as a shortstop by the White Sox in the first round, and you had a promising percentage of African-American players picked high. MLB's Urban Youth Academy and RBI initiatives are an expanding effort to make that more common. What made Smith choose baseball?
"At a young age, I just really loved the game, honestly," he said. "Just waking up every day on a beautiful summer day in California, it's hard to turn away from that. It's a game I grew more passion for all the time. It's a challenging game and I like a challenge; that's probably why I like the sport."
Smith caught a wink or two sitting in the last row of the coach bus that took prospects and families back from Yankee Stadium to their hotel in Secaucus before the Draft. Seeing that opportunity, fellow prospect Ciuffo, the high school catcher from South Carolina, snuck back and took a pic of Smith sleeping. They already felt like pros together, brothers ready to set out for The Show.
With a fastball hitting 94 mph, and coming off that big state championship game on the mound, what does Smith think about being drafted to play first base instead of to pitch?
"During that Red Sox-Rangers blowout on Tuesday, the Rangers brought in David Murphy, a left-hander, to pitch," he said. "He actually struck out Mike Carp. Maybe one day I can do that. Even just to come in to relieve one day if I'm in the big leagues, because I can do it. I love pitching.
"Of course, I love playing baseball every day, so to wake up every day to play instead of every five days to pitch, that would be my preference."