For the fourth consecutive year, MLB's Urban Invitational was hosted at the Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans. Saturday began with Play Ball, a youth-oriented program rooted in teaching baseball's fundamentals, then featured a six-team, round-robin tournament, featuring Alcorn State's 11-3 win over Prairie View A&M, and Grambling State's 11-5
For the fourth consecutive year, MLB's Urban Invitational was hosted at the Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans. Saturday began with Play Ball, a youth-oriented program rooted in teaching baseball's fundamentals, then featured a six-team, round-robin tournament, featuring Alcorn State's 11-3 win over Prairie View A&M, and Grambling State's 11-5 win against Southern University.
In Saturday's other Invitational matchup at the University of New Orleans' Maestri Field, UNO captured an 8-5 win over the University of Illinois-Chicago during the weekend set, televised on MLB Network.
"You see the passion and energy from these teams, with the way that they play and how excited they are to be here, playing on MLB Network," said Del Matthews, MLB senior director of baseball development. "This is fun. This is what it is all about."
The goal for MLB's expanding youth-oriented initiatives -- a primary focus for MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred -- is to keep baseball pertinent in the lives of its pupils. To Matthews and Darrell Miller, vice president youth and facility development for Major League Baseball, that is what Saturday was actually all about.
"Keep playing," Miller said. "Make sure baseball is a part of their life. It doesn't have to be all of their life, it doesn't have to be all they do. But if it's a part of their life, that's valuable to us."
In the first game at Wesley Barrow Stadium, Alcorn State's five-run eighth inning boosted its eight-run win over the Panthers.
Prairie View A&M, behind a two-run homer deep into right-center field, knotted a 3-3 tie in the fifth inning before Alcorn State's eighth-inning rally.
Former Major League catcher Lenny Webster, who traveled from his home near Atlanta to New Orleans for the youth event, knew the home run would soar out of the ballpark once it smacked Prairie View A&M freshman Xavier Jefferson's bat.
In the second game, Southern allowed 11 runs on 14 hits between the third and fifth innings, pacing Grambling State's lead to 11-0. Southern added three runs in the bottom of the seventh and two more in the ninth, cutting Grambling's lead to six runs.
"Play Ball is a genius idea," said former White Sox and Mets manager Jerry Manuel.
Play Ball preceded Saturday's slate of games, with more than 80 New Orleans-based participants registered. The fundamentals-training event featured agility courses, a ground balls/pop-ups area and a baserunning tutorial.
Play Ball events were held recently in Arizona and Orlando, along with other host sites. More events like New Orleans' are forthcoming, given the successful execution of Manfred's vision, said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president youth programs.
"By doing this type of stuff, we begin to create those types of instincts at a young age, which is critical for our game of baseball," Manuel said during the 90-minute mini-camp.
"It starts with the Commissioner, then it trickles down to Tony and into our department with the youth initiatives that he's made a focus of his commissionership," Matthews said. "Really, we're carrying out his vision to have more kids playing, to be involved and make baseball fun."
Pitch, Hit and Run age-division winners were: Jeremy Gibson (7-8), Gavin Gibson (9-10), Cean Johnson (11-12) and Laila Mercadal (girls). Home Run Derby winners were Johnson (age 12) and Josh Gibson (age 14).
Last year, in the event's premiere season, the Junior Home Run Derby welcomed more than 100,000 participants. The national Pitch, Hit and Run competition accounted for approximately 700,000 members in the last calendar year.
Reagins, who focuses on the expansion of the Majors' youth program, said 150,000 to 200,000 participants in this year's Junior Home Run Derby would be "pretty exciting."
"Hopefully, they'll have a good experience while they're doing it," Reagins said. "We want to provide events that are fun, provide energy and that are good experiences for the kids. Hopefully, we create lifelong fans."
Reagins has planned for more than 250 youth events this calendar year, all of which cycle throughout MLB's Youth Academy ballparks.
Christian Boutwell is a contributor to MLB.com.