CINCINNATI -- For nearly a decade, the P&G MLB Reds Youth Academy has been known as a beacon for drawing more minority or inner-city boys and girls to participate in baseball and softball.
It has always stood for more than just that, however.
"We didn’t come out here to build a private baseball and softball training center," said Charley Frank, executive director of the Reds Community Fund. "We very intentionally moved to an urban community in a city to be a partner and be a part of what is hopefully an ongoing renaissance of the Reading Road corridor and neighborhoods that have had some difficult decades. We don’t want to hide in our academy facility and ballfields."
That point was underscored on Thursday, when the Reds Community Fund and Freestore Foodbank worked to provide 2,500 complete Thanksgiving meals for families in need at the academy. Cars were lined up for blocks in the Roselawn neighborhood as Reds broadcaster and former pitcher Sam LeCure and members of the front office filled cars with food and supplies.
It was the fourth straight year the RCF has hosted the Freestore Foodbank for the meal distribution, the largest single one-day event the Freestore does in the region.
The Youth Academy, which will celebrate its 10th anniversary in August, has also hosted -- among multiple events -- a fantasy camp for Miracle League players, an Ohio Suicide Prevention Foundation that featured outfielder Jake Fraley and community council meetings for the Bond Hill and Roselawn neighborhoods.
At least a dozen Reds players, including Joey Votto, participated in different events throughout the year. Several of the club's younger players -- like TJ Friedl and Will Benson -- made appearances as well.
“Members of the baseball staff are out here too telling the guys, ‘Hey, this is part of your culture. When you’re in the big leagues with the Reds, this is our community home,’" said Frank. "You will be given plenty of menu options on how to engage, but we really want everyone to feel like this is part of the Reds experience."
An important effort for the Reds Community Fund at the academy is its Scholars Program for 250 high school student athletes, grades 9-12, already in the RBI baseball/softball program.
The Scholars Program, which has an immersive year-long curriculum, provides not only athletic development but also courses in leadership, financial literacy, personality training, nutrition and college preparation.
“We’re about Major League citizens," Frank said. "We’ll have kids that come out of here and hopefully get drafted from time to time. We will scream from the rooftops when a young person comes through the academy, signs a pro contract and signs with the Reds and makes their way through the Reds system and plays in the Major Leagues. That would be a dream come true. But that’s going to be a once-every-10-years type of thing if we’re fortunate.
"Every year, we want to get kids the resources so they can confidently get beyond high school. They can graduate, get scholarship support and have the opportunity to transition into either college, a trade school, into military service or into the workforce. That’s the everyday, every year thing. We really try to be great at both.”
Meanwhile, the Reds Community Fund and Youth Academy remains intent on cultivating baseball talent and achievement. Its senior RBI team reached the Nike RBI World Series at Vero Beach, Fla., for the third time in four years. The Reds' RBI softball club went to its fifth straight Nike RBI World Series.
In September, softball legend Jennie Finch concluded an eight-city pitching clinic tour of all the MLB Academies with a stop in Cincinnati.
The Reds Academy is putting the finishing touches on a $500,000 renovation program of its outdoor fields. It just completed the conversion of its stadium surface to a synthetic infield -- which gives all four baseball and softball fields a synthetic infield.
While everybody would prefer to play on natural grass and dirt, it was more of a priority to just play at all in spring months when rain and inclement weather factor heavily.
“This is a game changer for us," Frank said. “The grass and dirt cost us a lot of games in the spring because it gets flooded and creates a lot of stress for the Reds' grounds crew that helps us maintain the facility.”
The Reds Community Fund also continued its efforts to improve ballfields away from the Youth Academy. In June, at the Leblond Recreation Complex in the East End and with the support of the MLB/MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, the club organized volunteers to upgrade PNC Field. A new synthetic softball field was installed by Playground Equipment Services.
The P&G MLB Reds Youth Academy and the Reds Community Fund will always put its energies into both baseball and softball, but also social programs.
“It’s all important," Frank said. "But really creating that mission clarity is critical as we enter our second decade out here.”