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Higashioka returns to MLB Youth Academy

MLB.com

COMPTON, Calif. -- When Kyle Higashioka earned his callup with the Yankees last April, he became the latest MLB Youth Academy alumnus to break through to the big leagues.

Higashioka was among the first youth athletes to compete at the Compton academy, which first opened its doors in 2006 and has grown into a training ground for young baseball and softball talent in the Southern California area. The 27-year-old catcher returned to his old haunts Thursday, looking to re-establish a connection with a place that featured prominently in his development.

COMPTON, Calif. -- When Kyle Higashioka earned his callup with the Yankees last April, he became the latest MLB Youth Academy alumnus to break through to the big leagues.

Higashioka was among the first youth athletes to compete at the Compton academy, which first opened its doors in 2006 and has grown into a training ground for young baseball and softball talent in the Southern California area. The 27-year-old catcher returned to his old haunts Thursday, looking to re-establish a connection with a place that featured prominently in his development.

"I figured it'd be good for me to kind of use whatever platform I have to give back, and this is one of the places that really made an impression on me," Higashioka said.

Video: Higashioka ready to join Yankees' youth in Bronx

Higashioka, who grew up in nearby Huntington Beach, Calif., toured the facility, which has undergone significant renovations and improvements in the years since he played there, and spoke with a few local youth teams. He hopes to help support the Compton academy by fundraising in the future.

The academy provides free baseball and softball instruction, as well as educational and vocational training for young athletes in the community, many of whom may not otherwise have access to these opportunities. The success of the Compton academy eventually became the blueprint for MLB to expand its reach with additional facilities in Cincinnati, Dallas, Houston, Kansas City, Philadelphia and Washington.

"Me being from Huntington Beach, I didn't have to worry about equipment or finding a place to play," Higashioka said. "[For] underprivileged kids or kids that maybe baseball is a tough game for them to afford, it gives them a level playing field with kids who don't have to worry about that stuff."

Video: TB@NYY: Higashioka enters his first big league game

Major Leaguers such as Anthony Gose, Mike Moustakas, Freddie Freeman, Dominic Smith, J.P. Crawford and Higashioka's Yankees' teammate Aaron Hicks are alumni of the program, as is last year's No. 2 overall Draft pick, Reds prospect Hunter Greene.

Many of them, like Higashioka, are still engaged with the academy by making visits, assisting with clinics or instruction or fundraising. They've established a culture of giving back with each generation of athletes paying it forward to the next.

"What's kind of interesting is we didn't have to say anything," said Derrell Miller, a former Major Leaguer who now serves as MLB's vice president for youth and facility development. "We never said, 'Hey, by the way, you guys owe us, you better come back.' But these guys all know what got them there.

"They're really looking to give back because they appreciate what was given to them."

Higashioka, a seventh-round Draft pick by the Yankees in 2008, has come a long way since his days at the academy, logging nine years in the Minor Leagues before making his MLB debut on April 10 last season, when Gary Sanchez landed on the disabled list. Higashioka played in nine games (five starts) last season, and he now has an opportunity to contribute to a team expected to contend for a World Series title this fall.

"I'm hungry to get back on that squad, hopefully permanently," Higashioka said. "We'll just see how it unfolds."

Chad Thornburg is a reporter for MLB.com based in Los Angeles.

Kyle Higashioka