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Latest ACE crop grateful as college choices announced

Twelve program participants gather at U.S. Cellular Field on Tuesday

CHICAGO -- One by one, the 12 players seated at a long table in the U.S. Cellular Field Conference and Learning Center on Tuesday evening read off his name and announced the college or university where he was about to sign a letter of intent.

Each player also had a message of praise for the Amateur City Elite, a unique youth traveling baseball program run by the White Sox for inner-city individuals from ages 13-18, which had helped all of them get to this point.

There was Kevin Jones, a student at Portage High School in Indiana who will be attending Northern Illinois University.

"I want to thank the White Sox for an opportunity to not only grow as a player but as a man," Jones said.

And there was Angel Figueroa, who attended Bishop Knoll High School and will be playing baseball at Black Hawk College.

"This has been an opportunity that will last me a lifetime," Figueroa said.

Twelve messages, each one a little different. But the spirit of the commentary was the same. Playing for the White Sox Amateur City Elite had changed the life of these young men.

Baseball is the focus for this group of players, who were supposed to number 13, but Rahman Williams was unable to attend. Yet, the ACE program teaches these kids as much about life and education as it does about going from first to third on a single to right or hitting the cutoff man.

"It's the product of a nice combination of everyone's passion for baseball as well as [White Sox chairman Jerry Reinsdorf's] intent to try to give everyone a level playing field, an opportunity to achieve to the maximum of their abilities," White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. "Although the roots of this activity or this opportunity are in baseball on the field, in reality, it's about trying to give people an opportunity to better themselves both on and off the field and an opportunity to get seen by some scouts or some university recruiters who might otherwise not see these players play.

"A lot of times, as you can see here today and over the last couple of years, the opportunities for scholarships and college education [are available] that perhaps wouldn't be available to some people. Baseball is just a small part of the pride that we feel today."

The Amateur City Elite began in 2007 and has watched 11 athletes selected in the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft. There have been 65 USA Baseball Breakthrough Series participants, one IHSBCA Player of the Year and two High School All-Americans. More importantly, 72 ACE athletes have gone on to play college baseball and there is a 99-percent high school graduation rate for participants.

Troy White, one of the members of the first ACE class, now works in the sales department for the White Sox. He was one of the many people in attendance Tuesday, which also included friends and family of the players, members of the White Sox front office and left-handed starter Hector Santiago.

Santiago took part on signing day last year and was eager to be present again in 2013, with all of these ACE players also receiving athletic aid at their future schools.

"We had two guys out of our group who got college scholarships," said Santiago, speaking of his inner-city youth program in New Jersey. "Being here and seeing it and having gone through the same things they did, it's nice."

"They really have guided me in the right direction," said Jones, whose goal is to get his education at NIU and start as a freshman. "They've shown me that the dedication and the hard work throughout the years playing with the White Sox has really paid off and it's going to last. They really help you with recruiting and getting scouts in front of you."

Hahn praised the family and coaches of Jones, Figueroa, Williams, Christian Bland, David Calderon, James Davison, Darius Day, Diontrell Earls, Justin Freeman, Anthony Justiniano, Adam Kelly, Jamal Marti and Lavar Reed for helping the players get to this point. He credited the players themselves, as well as the White Sox's Christine O'Reilly, Kevin Coe and Nathan Durst for pushing this program beyond the bounds of success that originally could have been imagined.

In his closing comments from the actual ceremony, Hahn also pointed out that these young men are as much representatives of the community as they are baseball stars of their respective schools.

"Know that distinction and pride comes with responsibilities," Hahn said. "And don't forget the [ACE] team motto: 'TNDO -- Take No Days Off.' Carry that motto forward in everything you do. Not just the weight room and the field, but in the classroom."

Scott Merkin is a reporter for Read his blog, Merk's Works, and follow him on Twitter @scottmerkin.
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