New Orleans a perfect host for Urban Invitational
City showcases newest facility in Urban Youth Academy family
The pace and intensity of the mission seems to increase from year to year. The seventh annual Urban Invitational brought Major League Baseball's youth initiative to New Orleans for the first time, and it showcased a new facility in the growth and development of the Urban Youth Academy family.
New Orleans, the site of the third domestically grown Urban Youth Academy, enthustiastically greeted the tourney this year, and four local schools were proud to be a part of it. Previously, the tourney had been held in Compton, Calif., and Houston, but it made itself right at home in New Orleans.
Darrell Miller, Major League Baseball's vice president of youth and facility development, said the caliber of local baseball was important in landing the Urban Invitational in New Orleans. Ron Maestri, the longtime coach at the University of New Orleans, and Paul Mainieri, the coach at LSU, have been ardent advocates for the game in Louisiana, and Southern coach Roger Cador has been one of the game's great ambassadors.
Cador has brought Southern to all seven editions of the Urban Invitational, and James Cooper, the coach at Grambling State, had played in the tourney twice. This time, Miller said that MLB was thrilled to bring the tourney to them and to set the stage for further growth of the game in New Orleans.
"It was a bit of a thank you to Coach Cador, because he's been on board with this tournament from the beginning," Miller said. "Coach Cooper and his team were in the Urban Invitational in Houston, and he's a young coach that's really doing a great job at Grambling State.
"To have an all-Louisiana Urban Invitational was a lot of fun. And we were thankful that Louisiana State University was so kind and that their people were so cooperative. They let us host and televise two games from Alex Box Stadium, which is really a state-of-the-art facility. That's one of the best college baseball programs in the United States, and if you're talking great baseball, that's a place you want to do something."
Miller said that all four coaches provide such great examples for their players and for the future generations of college students, and he said he was intrigued by their relationship to one another. Maestri had coached Mainieri at UNO before taking three decades away from the dugout, and his first two games in the Urban Invitational were both against his former player and assistant coach.
Mainieri, who led LSU to the College World Series title in 2009, said he was thrilled to be a part of promoting the game in Louisiana. And both Cador and Cooper were glad to have their team on a national stage.
But, if not for Maestri and fellow New Orleans native Ron Washington, the Urban Youth Academy and the Urban Invitational may never have come to Louisiana, Miller said.
Miller said that Maestri and Washington helped lobby local government officials to get behind the Urban Youth Academy, which rebuilt a piece of land that had been damaged by Hurricane Katrina. Now, the new Wesley Barrow Stadium stands as a testament to the love of the game in Louisiana.
"Ron Maestri and Ron Washington, those are two big names in New Orleans. If it wasn't for those two guys, I don't know where we'd be," Miller said. "Coach Maestri understands and he's seen a change in the kids playing the game. Ron Washington and a lot of us who have been in the game a long time know that baseball changes lives. It develops character and it makes Major League people."
Indeed, that's the lofty goal of the Urban Youth Academy, which aims to provide free baseball and softball instructions to local area youth. But there's so much more that goes on at the academy, and children are exposed to tutoring and academic support to help them excel in school.
Countless students have used the Urban Youth Academy experience to further their education, whether it be through an athletic scholarship or improved grades that helped them enter the school of their dreams. And now, academies are offering coaching clinics and field-management courses to local adults, allowing them to expand their skill-set and take care of the game in their community.
The New Orleans academy, run by director Eddie Davis, opened in November 2012, and it's already begun to flex its muscles. The Urban Invitational, in this case, allowed it a national stage.
"Eddie Davis has done such a good job. More than a thousand kids are participating at the academy already, and it's only been a year. It's amazing," said Miller. "Also, it's a great facility, and having a tournament like this is an advertisement for it. It can give the local community an appetite and let people know that we're there. There's going to be another boost. After we had the Urban Invitational in Houston, it took that academy to the next level. We hope the tourney can be a catalyst here."
The Urban Youth Academy has three facilities in the United States, and there are new academies currently being built in Cincinnati and Philadephia, which are expected to open this year.
Miller said that MLB is always looking to find places where the Urban Youth Academy can take root and blossom, and he mentioned San Francisco, Chicago and Milwaukee as sites for potential future academies. If your city has a thriving baseball youth culture, it could be next in line.
"Were looking at a lot of opportunities. And we're looking for other opportunities in the South to see what we can come up with and build," said Miller. "We're just really being open to people that really want the academy. I think the one-two punch of the RBI program and the Urban Youth Academy can really do a good job in giving kids an opportunity to play both baseball and softball.
"If they want to introduce the game, RBI is outstanding. And if they want to continue to play, the Urban Youth Academy is unsurpassed in giving good quality instruction to kids that want to play a little bit more. For us, a brick-and-mortar presence is more cities is really going to be a boon to the game overall."