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Youth invitational teaches, inspires players

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Dodgertown, the one-time Spring Training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, turns out to be the perfect location for Major League Baseball's first Elite Development Invitational.

The Dodgers, after all, are the franchise that broke baseball's color barrier with Jackie Robinson's MLB debut on April 15, 1947.

Fittingly, it was at Dodgertown's Jackie Robinson Room where more than 150 young baseball players -- most of them African-American -- gathered for lunch on Wednesday in between morning and afternoon on-field training sessions.

Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs, said the goal of this first EDI was to help refine the skills of the players, who are between the ages of 13 to 16.

Reagins said the July 18-29 camp, which was made possible by joint funding from MLB and the MLB Players Association, has drawn players from all over the country.

"We built a website and partnered with USA Baseball and the Players Association -- and invitations came that way," Reagins began. "They came via the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau, ACES in Chicago, the Urban Youth Academies in Houston, New Orleans and Compton (Calif.) and a couple of [players] from Philadelphia.

"The key component was a willingness to be here and commit to the entire [stay]. And we really wanted to focus on kids in under-served areas, whether they were black, white, Hispanic -- it didn't matter as long as they had a need and were committed to wanting to learn to play the game the right way."

An All-Star cast of former big league players has committed to helping teach those needed fundamentals during the camp.

Some of the bigger names among the instructors include:

• Former shortstop Maury Wills, who was the National League's MVP Award winner in 1962. He won three World Series titles, two Gold Glove Awards and earned seven All-Star berths. He stole 104 bases in 1962, which was a Major League record at the time.

• Seven-time All-Star pitcher Lee Smith, who held the Major League career saves record for more than a decade before he was passed by Trevor Hofman in 2006. Smith, at 6-feet-6 and 265 pounds, was a dominant force in baseball throughout the 1980s and '90s.

• Former outfielder Dusty Baker, who helped the Dodgers win the World Series in 1981. He was a two-time All-Star, won two Silver Slugger Awards, one Gold Glove and one NL Championship Series MVP Award. He was also a three-time Manager of the Year, taking the Giants, Reds and Cubs to the postseason.

Besides those three, the camp's other instructors include Tom "Flash" Gordon, Homer Bush, Endy Chavez, Lou Collier, Bob Didier, Dave Gallagher, Marquis Grissom, Edward Guzman, Jeffrey Hammonds, Mickey Hatcher, Ken Hill, Ron Jackson, Ken Landreaux, Leon Lee, Rob Picciolo, Chris Speier, Michael Tucker, Lenny Webster and Dmitri Young.

Jerry Manuel, a former Major League player and manager who now works as an analyst for MLB Network, is serving as the camp's coordinator of instruction.

Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, is also a coordinator of instruction. Baseball executive Omar Minaya, now the MLBPA's senior advisor to the executive director, is expected to make an appearance at the camp, according to Reagins.

Gordon, a three-time All-Star who led the American League in saves in 1998, connected easily with the kids at the camp -- but not necessarily due to his time in the big leagues.

"I've had a lot of kids come up to me and say, 'You're Dee Gordon's dad," he said of his son, who was named an All-Star Game starter this year as the Miami Marlins' speedy and hot-hitting second baseman.

"They don't say, 'You're Tom Gordon, the father.' But it's still a proud moment for me. I absolutely love it."

Gordon said that one of the many benefits of the camp -- besides sharpening the players' skills -- was having them learn about some of the history of the game by meeting the history-makers.

"With them getting a chance to meet Maury this morning -- he's an ambassador to the game, a wonderful man, I loved him from the first day I met him over 25 years ago -- now they got a chance to see his face," Gordon said.

"For the kids to shake his hand and be around him, that's amazing. You want kids to have heroes and someone who set the tone in the community."

Gordon said he made sure to let the young campers know they are playing on the same fields where former Dodgers greats such as Robinson and Wills once competed.

"I know, in my heart, that Jackie would be proud of this moment," Gordon said.

Reagins said he hoped that the Dodgertown environment would help inspire all the kids at the camp.

"Just being here, they will get a grasp of history and what it meant to be an African-American player back in the 1940s, and the impact Jackie had on not only the game, but on America," Reagins said. "This is an exciting place.

"I think the kids are starting to understand how much history is here, and the caliber of people we are bringing in to speak with them and interact with them."

Ron Washington Jr., who last week tied for the top spot at the High School Home Run Derby in Cincinnati, is participating in the EDI camp and said he has enjoyed it so far.

"It's been very helpful," said Washington, who will be a high school junior this fall in Texas. "It's a lot of learning --- focusing on the fundamentals. I think I needed that.

"I think this will grow to be a big program in the next couple of years."

Walter Villa is a contributor to