UYA's hard work pays off in First-Year Player Draft
NEW YORK -- From top to bottom, the 2013 First-Year Player Draft signaled another rousing success for Major League Baseball's Urban Youth Academies. Five players with ties to the academies were drafted in the first two rounds, and several others will have a chance to play professionally.
Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facility development, said that his staff at the Compton UYA has worked long and hard to prepare kids for their future. And after seeing such players as Dominic Smith and J.P. Crawford achieve first-round success, all the time and energy seems worth it.
"We were hoping that this is the type of thing that would happen after we were open a while and had a chance to influence kids," said Miller. "We thought that the academies might be bearing fruit by the sixth or seventh year. When you start with fourth- and fifth-graders, you know that your influence will start paying off by the time they're in high school. And when you start with the kids that are a little bit older, you know that you can help them into college and maybe even into the Draft."
Smith and Crawford, drafted in the first round by the Mets and Phillies, respectively, are emblematic of the youngsters who have come out to the Compton facility over the last seven years. Smith, in fact, started going to the academy at 12 years old and often stayed there all day.
Miller found himself reminiscing with Smith's parents on Draft night, and they spoke of how much young Dominic had enjoyed going to the academy. It wasn't just baseball instruction but classroom support, too, and Dominic gleefully recalled scarfing down sandwiches and pizza there.
And now, seven years later, he's on the verge of either going to college or signing a lucrative contract to join the Mets. Miller hugged Smith and his parents right after they'd learned the youngster's Draft status last Thursday night, and they all knew how much work had gone into making it happen.
"It was actually quite emotional," said Miller. "Mrs. Smith, she was talking to Dominic's father and she said, 'I'm the one who found the academy. I started taking him there when he was only 12 years old.' And then she said, 'You guys were great baby-sitters.' I laughed and said, 'We were great baby-sitters. You'd drop Dominic off at camp at 9 and come pick him up at 5:30 or 6 that afternoon.'"
The Compton academy also had a trio of players selected before the end of the second round. Austin Wilson went to Stanford and was drafted by Seattle at No. 49 overall. Two younger academy players, Gosuke Katoh and Kevin Franklin, went back-to-back at No. 66 and 67.
These players know one another well, often from playing together at some point. Three years ago, in fact, Smith, Crawford, Katoh and Wilson were on the same team in the USA-Japan Series at the Urban Youth Academy, and Miller can remember hoping for great things for them.
"Austin Wilson, he's come through a lot as well," said Miller. "He has a great family. They lived in the Valley, and he'd come down to play every weekend for three or four years. He's just a monster, and he has real game-changing ability. He's a perfect corner guy with power to all fields, and [he's] a quality human being. They're not on every street corner. He'll be in the game for life after his playing career."
Also among the UYA draftees are a pair of seventh-rounders -- Connor Greene and Chris Rivera -- 10th-rounder Alex Newman and 11th-round pick Adam Plutko. Tyler Alamo was drafted in the 24th round and Ivory Thomas in the 34th, but perhaps the greatest success story came last.
Miller spoke proudly of Juan Avena, a 37th-round selection of the Mets, as one of the academy's greatest achievements. Avena has survived an odyssey of misfortune that includes academic struggles and a near-death experience in the form of a shooting on his way home from the academy.
Avena, after finding the right path in life, was shot four times in a case of mistaken identity and had to fight to resume his normal life. Now a graduate of Downey High School, he went on to star at El Camino College Compton Center and will now have a chance to take his game to the next level.
"I think Juan's the most telling story. For him to come from near death and not being sure if he could ever play again to now is pretty amazing," said Miller. "He had a 1.9 GPA when he started coming to the academy. He was trying to avoid the gangs and do the right thing. He started coming when he was 13 or 14, and he went from that 1.9 GPA all the way to the Dean's List by being accountable and being mentored. He was with a really good friend that got ambushed for a gang, and he was shot and almost killed. They both weren't gang members, they were members of the academy.
"It's just an amazing story that he's been able to recover and get his strength back, and now he was drafted by the Mets. He's just a quality kid, a quality human being. It makes me cry."
The Compton academy, one of four in existence, had the most success on Draft night, but the facility in Puerto Rico also had seven draftees. Victor Caratini, an alumnus of the academy who later played at Southern University and Miami Dade Community College South, went in the second round.
Three graduates of the Puerto Rico Baseball Academy -- Xavier Fernandez, Jacob Cordero and Johneshwy Fargas -- were drafted in the 11th round.
Three more went on the final day, providing another strong showing for the school that produced the top overall selection (Carlos Correa) in the 2012 First-Year Player Draft. Miller said that in time, the Urban Youth Academies in Houston and New Orleans will show the same kind of growth.
"We opened in Houston in 2010. We think it will start bearing fruit in 2014 or 2015," he said. "It was different in California, because we knew we have to develop fast. We had the shotgun approach, and we started with everything. In Houston and New Orleans, we have a more disciplined approach, where we started with fourth- and fifth-graders. We're going to do the same thing in Washington, D.C. And that's how you introduce the program, you add a year every year and you continue to grow."
If that's how it works on the micro level, it works the same way globally. The Urban Youth Academy in Washington is expected to be finished this November, and the field for the Philadelphia academy could also be completed by then. There are also planned facilities in South Florida and Cincinnati, which could ultimately double the UYA count, from four to eight, within four years.
And it won't stop there. Miller said on Saturday that MLB has begun exploring the idea of opening academies in Detroit, Milwaukee and Chicago, but nothing is official yet. Someday, he hopes, the Urban Youth Academy will begin affecting kids in every big eague city.
But that's a dream for another day. For now the work remains with youth at each of the academies and in recruiting new youngsters. Miller wants to give credit to Don Buford, the manager of the Compton Urban Youth Academy, and to Doug Takaragawa, the academy coordinator, and to dozens of others for helping to make the academy better.
"We are very blessed," he said. "We're really doing about as well as we can right now."