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Academy in New Orleans ahead of schedule

Urban youth baseball facility is slated for grand opening in July

Baseball is coming to the banks of Lake Pontchartrain.

Construction has reached a fruitful stage for Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans, a facility that will be located within a mile of the city's famous lake and nestled right next to some important local landmarks.

Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, visited the prospective New Orleans academy this week and came away impressed. Everything's ahead of schedule, he said on Friday, and the Urban Youth Academy appears set for a grand opening in July.

"The amazing part is that this whole area was under 10 feet of water a few years ago," said Miller. "You can see that it's almost like a resurrection, for lack of a better phrase. Once, this was all dead, but now it's alive and functioning and will be helping to develop the local youth of the area.

"And the one thing they need in New Orleans is facilities; facilities available to kids. We're at the top of the list as far as restoration goes, and to say it's sorely needed is an understatement."

The New Orleans Urban Youth Academy will rest on the site of the old Wesley Barrow Stadium in Pontchartrain Park, and it will offer year-round instruction to local-area youth. Construction is at an early stage but progressing rapidly, and the facility itself is beginning to take shape.

Major League Baseball already operates Urban Youth Academies in Puerto Rico, Compton, Calif., and Houston, but this will be the first three-field facility constructed under Miller's watch. And New Orleans may not have a Major League team, but it does have an infrastructure in place.

Miller spoke with pride about how the academy will lie adjacent to Joseph M. Bartholomew Sr. Golf Course, which is believed to be the first public course in the country that was designed by an African-American. And he hopes that the nearby location of both Southern University and the University of New Orleans will lead to some natural synergy at some point down the line.

"We're right across from Southern University at New Orleans and about a quarter-mile from the baseball facilities of UNO," said Miller. "We hope that Southern students and faculty will help us with educational support and in our mentorship programs. And we've talked to the UNO coaches about being partners with our camps and our clinics. That's really the kind of help we need.

"The kids really respond to college players and guys that have gone on to play professionally. They speak the same language, at least more so than we do as 40 and 50 year olds at the facility."

The completed academy in New Orleans will have space for a stadium field, a girls softball field and a T-Ball field for younger kids. There will also be a space for indoor batting cages, and Miller hopes that the facility will be teeming with local kids as soon as August or September.

"There's a lot of people champing at the bit," he said. "The time we open is a good time because it's during baseball season and we can make a splash. People are so into the Saints that it may have been difficult to open during football season, but the timing for us couldn't be better."

And while the facility in New Orleans is making progress, Major League Baseball is moving forward with plans for Urban Youth Academies in other cities. Miller said that there's a construction meeting for a facility in Philadelphia scheduled for later this month, and he also said that a prospective academy in South Florida should have plans in place by the end of the summer.

There are also plans for future academies in Cincinnati and San Francisco, but those are still in the conceptual stage. New Orleans may serve as a template for future academies to come, but Miller said that all of the academies will operate on the same founding principles.

"We know how the franchise works," he said. "It's about making a difference in people's lives and about making sure that baseball is healthy in America. We're enabling kids to play the greatest game ever invented, and we're providing quality instruction that doesn't cost a lot of money. It's as daunting as it is fulfilling because we want to make sure that we have a tight program that's ready to run."

The nearby golf course, which had been closed since the ravages of Hurricane Katrina, recently re-opened in November. That timing works well in concert with the proposed opening of the academy, and together they'll work to revitalize the area and provide opportunities for recreation.

The facility's grand opening in July will include some Louisiana natives who have grown famous through baseball, and Miller hopes to pay tribute to the area's rich tradition by opening a little Hall of Fame to commemorate the careers of several former players from New Orleans.

The real joy of this project, said Miller, is the way the local community has embraced it. New Orleans is ready and quite enthusiastic for its Urban Youth Academy, and Miller said that has manifested itself in terms of interest from residents and cooperation from the government.

"We're really happy that the city has made this a priority," said Miller. "They really care. They're really pushing this project along. Our construction team has really been pushing the envelope to make sure that it's constructed quickly and constructed correctly. They've really worked at this with integrity and character, and it's really been quite comforting for us to watch it progress."

Spencer Fordin is a reporter for