NEW ORLEANS -- A graduation day of sorts arrived Saturday for five student-athlete products of the MLB Youth Academy of New Orleans.
Shortstop Will Spear and pitcher/first baseman Mike Mims of New Orleans-St. Augustine and Chalmette, La., right-hander Antoine Harris announced their college choices in front of a gathering of family, friends and a collection of younger Academy members during an hourlong event staged at the MLB Youth Academy at Wesley Barrow facility.
Harris announced his choice of the University of New Orleans, Spear chose the University of Arkansas-Little Rock and Mims selected Grambling State.
Two other MLB Youth Academy of New Orleans products, who could not attend the festivities, were honored as well. They were Lake Charles, La., Barbe High School outfielder/pitcher Damon Fountain and St. James, La., softball outfielder/pitcher Kiri Parker.
Fountain is scheduled to sign with Tulane and Parker with Alcorn State University on Wednesday, National Signing Day, as will Spear, Mims and Harris.
"When days like this come along, it's always exciting for us,'' Eddie Davis, director of the MLB Youth Academy in New Orleans, said, beaming like a proud papa. "We normally are dealing with the daily grind with our nose down to the ground, training every day, year-round, so the years go by pretty quick.
"So when you see kids who started here when they were in eighth grade and ninth grade, and then you look up and they're graduating and getting ready to go to college, it really makes you reflect and admire and appreciate how far they've come.
"You appreciate how they've put in a lot of work and trusted the process. Of course, our staff does a great job here. So just seeing [the staff's] hard work and then getting to see the kids continue their careers is an honor to us.''
Spear and Mims were MLB Youth Academy members for five years and are entering their fourth seasons as starters at St. Augustine, where they helped the Purple Knights become the Gentilly school's first baseball team to advance to the Louisiana High School Athletic Association state playoffs last spring.
Spear was a New Orleans All-Metro and All-District 9-5A selection who batted .422, stole 26 bases, hit 13 doubles and scored 53 runs from the leadoff spot. He said he plans to major in business analysis at University of Arkansas-Little Rock.
"When I got there, it felt like it was home,'' Spear said of UALR. "The coaching staff is amazing. It felt like a place that I could affect change and make an impact there.''
Spear also had scholarship offers from Tulane, Nicholls State, South Alabama, Southern University and Grambling.
Of his MLB Youth Academy in New Orleans experience, Spear said, "They pushed me first academically to stay strong and to make sure that I stayed focused on what I'm doing. That was to have one goal and to work hard every day and give 100 percent.''
Mims played first base and the outfield, served as a designated hitter and was a left-handed pitcher and batter for St. Augustine, where he batted .296 with 26 RBIs and six doubles. Mims also compiled a 5-3 record on the mound with 30 strikeouts and an ERA of 2.55 in 54 innings that included a playoff victory against Archbishop Rummel.
"When I took my visit [to Grambling], it just felt like home,'' said Mims, who plans to major in criminal justice. "I just want to go there and help win a national championship and a SWAC championship all of the years that I'm there. And then I hope to have an opportunity to move on to the next level.''
Mims additionally had scholarship offers from Alabama State, Georgia State, Jackson State, Alcorn State, Rush University, Tuskegee and Florida State College.
"I've been going here since I was 11 or 12 years old,'' Mims said of the MLB Youth Academy. "It impacted me so much playing and practicing every day against great competition. Playing against guys that went on to go to the [Division] I level. So that helped prepare me from when I was young to be able to compete against good competition. It has helped prepare me for the best.''
Harris was another five-year MLB Youth Academy participant and was chosen co-Most Valuable Player in District 8-5A this past season as a junior in his first season for Chalmette's league champions. Used almost exclusively as a pitcher, Harris emerged as the staff ace by winning four games and saving two others in compiling a 4-4 record and 2.69 ERA.
The 6-foot-4 right-hander, whose fastball has been clocked at 94 mph during national tournament competition last summer, struck out 91 and walked 21 in 52 innings in addition to surrendering 30 hits, 24 runs and 20 earned runs.
Harris chose Tulane from a group of schools that included Southern University and 16 others. He said he plans to major in engineering at University of New Orleans.
"The school has a good engineering program and I've always wanted to be an engineer,'' Harris said. "Both of my parents went there. They gave me a good scholarship [offer]. And I like the coaching staff. The team is getting way better. UNO is close to home, not far at all, about a 15-minute ride.''
Harris came to the MLB Youth Academy in New Orleans as a third baseman before Academy coaches discovered his niche was as a pitcher.
"I came here to get work at third and to work on my hitting and defense,'' Harris said. "But my first year coming here, I dropped third and became a [pitcher only]. It has proven to be a wonderful and rewarding experience.''
The MLB Youth Academy, entering its sixth year of existence in January, works with about 6,000 youth annually in the Greater New Orleans area, Davis said. Approximately 1,500 boys and girls are participating in the fall training program.
"Our girls program is exploding,'' Davis said. "Since we finished [artificial] turfing the softball field, those numbers increased over 300 percent. We're doing a great job getting girls playing at the next level as well.
"What we're really proud of here, and baseball and softball is one thing, but the vocational side has been an important piece of what we wanted to do here. We wanted to establish a junior broadcast program, a sports law program in which we are partnered with Tulane, an entrepreneur program, a SAT/ACT prep along with the STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] program that we have with the Science of Sports.
"Those programs are near and dear to my heart as well as the staff because 95 to 99 percent of the kids won't make it to the big leagues. But they can continue and have a career in sports. So my mission is to find out their interest outside the lines and let them know that they can continue in sports once baseball and softball are done. They can still stay close to the game.''
Mike Strom is a reporter based out of New Orleans.