It's not long after dawn on Monday, April 29, when the 13-U and 12-U travel teams from the Major League Baseball Youth Academy in New Orleans return home, fresh off a National Youth Baseball Championships qualifier tournament in Grapevine, a suburb of Dallas, Texas.
Both teams fared well in their respective age groups against some of the top young talent in the nation, with the 13-U team losing a one-run game in the semifinals to the Texas Stix -- a club that counts Mets right-hander Noah Syndergaard as an alumnus -- and the 12-U team falling in the championship to the Yeti Crawdads, another elite youth travel club from Texas.
But they are striving for more. Later that day, many of the same kids who had just played a tournament and then traveled more than seven hours on a charter bus would be back on the field, working hard with an eye on their next opportunity to showcase their skills on a big stage.
“You had kids come out for training that evening,” said Eddie Davis, the director of the New Orleans Youth Academy. “We told them to stay home [after the long trip and early-morning return]. They didn’t want to stay home.”
That type of dedication, work ethic and love of the game is instilled at the many locations of the MLB Youth Academy, a non-profit organization that provides free baseball and softball instruction in addition to educational services to underprivileged children who may not otherwise have access to the kind of programs, equipment and facilities provided by MLB.
The first MLB Youth Academy opened in Compton, Calif., in 2006. There are now two in Texas (Houston and Dallas), one in Philadelphia, one in Cincinnati, one in Kansas City, and one in Washington D.C., in addition to the academies in Compton and New Orleans, which opened in 2012. New academies are set to open in The Bronx, N.Y., San Francisco and Chicago in the future.
Although neither New Orleans Youth Academy team qualified for the NYBC tournament, which will be held in July at the Baseball Heaven complex in Long Island, N.Y. and will air live on CBS Sports Network and MLB.com, Davis considers it incredibly valuable when players who are developed by the Academy show they can compete with top-level competition.
“It builds their confidence up to let them know that they can play with anyone, and on any given day, they can have success and win,” Davis said. “Most of these elite travel teams, they source the best talent throughout the area, or even potentially fly in kids for high-level events. We take pride in [competing with those teams]. From our opening training, [our teams are comprised of] kids that just come through the doors and are participating in Academy training and development. And we are taking their skills to a different level and giving these kids an opportunity that normally couldn’t afford to play in events such as an NYBC qualifier.”
The 14-U team from the Compton Youth Academy competed in the NYBC tournament last year after winning a qualifier in Southern California, and coach Joe Terry said it was a “wonderful experience” to travel to New York for the event.
“A lot of the kids had never been to New York, let alone played baseball outside of California,” said Terry, a former Reds Minor Leaguer who began training at the Compton Youth Academy as a player when he was in high school. “We went to [New York] City, we saw the city, we got to be a little bit of tourists. Went to Times Square. Let the boys hang out. They don’t really get a lot of time to hang out outside of practice and tournaments. These boys were together for a weekend and got to know each other.”
The 13-U travel baseball team from Compton recently received an invitation to compete in the 2019 Xtreme Diamond Sports World Series, another major travel baseball tournament, from July 22-27, in San Diego after winning the Best of the West NIT SoCal tournament, which took place April 13-14.
Bree Simpson, a Compton Youth Academy alumna who is now its softball coordinator, said the players get a sense of pride when they represent the Academy at major travel events.
“Whenever we go to these tournaments, other teams are like, ‘Oh, so who are you guys?’ And we’re like, ‘We’re Team MLB,’” Simpson said. “The girls, they do walk around with a little more swagger to them because it’s, ‘We play for MLB. We’re just like Clayton Kershaw and Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger.’”
Performing well at major events also raises the profile of the MLB Youth Academy as a whole.
“It’s huge for the [New Orleans] program," Davis said. "It’s also huge for the Texas Academy program, because we had a lot of people ask about the Academy in Dallas [during the NYBC qualifier in Texas]. So it was an introduction to a lot of people about what the Academy stands for and what we’re about. And they actually got a chance to see the kids perform. It was encouraging to hear and exciting to get all the compliments back about how well the kids did and their skill level.”
According to Terry, competing in the NYBC tournament had the same effect for the Compton Youth Academy last year.
“We played on TV and a lot of guys from our city saw that and wanted to come and ask about the program," Terry said. "[They] were very intrigued and just continued to come in and ask daily about the program.”
Last summer also was monumental for the MLB Youth Academy softball program, as the inaugural Jennie Finch Classic was held in Washington D.C., the site of the 2018 MLB All-Star Game. Eight All-Star teams made up entirely of MLB Youth Academy softball players participated in a round-robin tournament, which was won by the Compton Youth Academy team, coached by Simpson.
Under Simpson’s guidance, the Compton Youth Academy 14-U softball team competed in a national qualifier for the 2018 AFA Nationals, and the Dodgers’ Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program softball team, which is comprised mostly of players from the Compton Youth Academy, won the 2018 West Regional to qualify for the RBI World Series for the first time since winning titles in 2010 and 2011.
Simpson said the Jennie Finch Classic, which will be held in Cleveland this year as part of the 2019 All-Star Week festivities, is already garnering significant interest in the travel softball community, though it remains an event that is only open to MLB Youth Academy members for now.
“We’re getting coaches asking, ‘So what is this, how can our team get into it?’ I see more and more travel ball teams that are starting to know about the Jennie Finch Classic, and now they want in,” Simpson said.
As for the New Orleans Youth Academy teams, there will still be chances to qualify for the NYBC tournament in the coming weeks, and Davis said they are considering their options.
“There are several more events that we’re looking at, since the kids came so close and proved themselves in [the qualifier in Texas],” Davis said. “Anytime you go that far in California, Texas or Florida -- those baseball hotbeds -- you know you’re playing against some real tough competition. So we’re eyeing some other qualifiers to give it another go.”
Thomas Harrigan_ is a reporter for MLB.com._