KANSAS CITY -- Royals great Willie Aikens made it to the Majors despite growing up enduring disadvantages that were typical for a Black kid in the Jim Crow South of the 1960s. Aikens and his friends loved baseball, but he had to improvise by swinging at balls made of mud, playing in Seneca, S.C., cow pastures that were marked with big rocks for bases.
Even after local coaches took an interest and got him into organized youth baseball when he was 10 or 11 years old, Aikens still would have appreciated an opportunity like the one offered at the Royals Urban Youth Academy on Tuesday night.
At least 100 boys and girls took turns inside the climate-controlled field house running the bases, fielding grounders and popups and swinging for the fences in the team's first Play Ball event of 2022. Aikens, the first baseman and cleanup hitter on the Royals' World Series team in 1980, helped out by tossing batting practice and giving pointers to the kids. Some of them recognized him from academy practices and games because he coaches there, too, but few if any know Aikens’ life story.
But he had an idea about theirs.
“A lot of the kids here tonight are growing up like I did, without a father figure in their lives at home,” Aikens said. “My male mentors were coaches. Playing organized baseball can build character, it can build discipline, it can build respect. It can help you take advantage of opportunities and help you make better choices. And it’s fun.”
Urban Youth Academy events are open to kids from any background, but the UYA's core mission is to get inner-city kids playing baseball and softball, those who otherwise do not have access to fully funded athletic programs.
Ariel Parnell brought daughters Ayana, 11, and Aidan Daniel, 9, to the event after signing up the older girl for an academy softball league in the fall. The sisters had played other organized sports like basketball before, but they are enjoying learning how to play softball.
"They fell in love with it," said Parnell, whose husband is deceased. "I never played softball when I was their age, and I wish there was something like this available. They like the camaraderie, making friends, learning how to play, understanding the technical aspects. I also like the leadership skills my older daughter is showing."
Parnell also appreciates that the academy seeks kids from the community, many of whom couldn’t otherwise afford to play.
"I have a limited income, and we couldn't do this without the UYA," Parnell said.
Darwin Pennye, the academy’s executive director since 2017, said the UYA is trying to improve kids’ lives in myriad ways. They want to get kids playing ball and to create new fans for the Royals and MLB, but they also want the kids to learn skills, values and behaviors that transcend the playground.
“Baseball can create lots of opportunities for these kids,” said Pennye, himself a Minor League player in the 1990s. “Working for a Major League organization like the Royals offers every kind of discipline you can think of. We want these kids to play, but also have a chance to work in a front office, or work as a journalist, or work as a youth coach for an academy. We want the kids to be able to see themselves inside of the sport in any capacity.”
Aikens, now 67, has worked for the Royals in different capacities, from slugger to coach to ambassador. Many fans know about the rocky road he traveled from near-stardom to drug addiction and prison. But it was the relationships Aikens forged in baseball that helped keep him going long enough to turn around his life. The Urban Youth Academy gives him a chance to continue making an impact long after his playing days. That Aikens can help kids who otherwise might not get it means everything to him.
“Something that [Royals president of baseball operations] Dayton Moore talks about is having players in the organization who have strong character,” Aikens said. “The Royals Urban Youth Academy is a place where we can promote those types of values in kids at a really young age. Imagine the impact we can have on the entire community, not just for baseball, in trying to grow young people who aspire to be like that. There should be more places like this in all 50 states.”