In the Hub City there is more to baseball than the American League and National League playoffs. But America’s favorite pastime almost vanished from most inner cities in the early 1970s when youth baseball left the urban areas for the suburbs.
With the departure of neighborhood park leagues like “Pee Wee,” “Babe Ruth” and “Connie Mack” went a unique opportunity for children of color to learn about teamwork, discipline and character. They were part of a bond where success or failure depended on confidence in one another.
Flash forward 40 years to see that inner-city baseball has made it back in a big way. The Major League Baseball (MLB) Urban Youth Academy on the grounds of Compton College, is a youth baseball school, which provides free baseball and softball instruction for Southern California boys and girls ages 8 through 19. The academy operates on a year-round basis and offers an after-school program, weeklong clinics (accommodating about 200 youth daily) and monthlong clinics designed to teach not only baseball, but important life lessons as well.
The academy is a convergence point for baseball players from all over the Southland. Its primary attendees, though, are from some of the nation’s toughest and most impoverished neighborhoods, such as Watts/Willowbrook, Compton, South Central and Florence-Firestone.
These regions of Los Angeles have for decades endured endemic unemployment, excessive single-parent households, high dropout rates, rampant drug trafficking, mandated school busing and the growth of some of the world’s most violent street gangs. Add to these two riots, recessions and the relocation of major manufacturing, and the result was two generations of youth would forgo baseball for a less expensive sport . . . like basketball.
Open since 2006 and encompassing 10 acres, the academy features state-of-the-art facilities, including a show field complete with multimedia scoreboard, grandstand, dugouts and lights. There is an auxiliary field, a softball field, batting cages, pitching mounds and a youth field. Its 12,000-square-foot clubhouse is designed much like a professional sports venue with a press box, a weight room, a Laundromat, locker rooms and showers and equipment and training rooms. There is secured, lighted parking as well as full culinary facilities and glass-walled executive offices.
As a nonprofit organization, the academy partners with the surrounding school districts, community groups, nearby colleges and universities and youth foundations to provide educational programs and classroom instruction in everything baseball: athletic turf maintenance, statistics, umpiring, athletic training and even sports reporting and broadcasting. Personal tutoring and counseling are provided for academic and career development.
Staffed by former major and minor league players and coaches, the academy is directed by Ike Hampton who remarked that the facility is often confused with Reviving Baseball in the Inner City (RBI), which is operated by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
“That’s a common mistake people often make,” said, Ike Hampton. “The RBI program began some years before us and they serve as a great partner to the academy. It was the success of that program that gave rise to the academy here. Our mission is to offer any and all instruction in baseball. Through athletics we can help build character, self-discipline, teamwork and sportsmanship.”
The youngsters compete in a 40-game schedule against competitors from all around the Southland. This is unique because many inner-city youth practically never compete in any endeavor against their White or Asian counterparts who may reside in more affluent communities such as Woodland Hills, Palos Verdes or Newport Beach. Baseball, in effect, becomes an equalizer of sorts; the program dispels the common misconception of minority youth not bonding with another racial or socioeconomic background. The youngsters eagerly embrace the varied racial makeup among the players as though they grew up with one another.
During the regular season, there are two “home” teams comprised of 16- to 19-year-olds called Palomino Blue and Palomino Red. An all-star team composed of these players competed against visiting Chinese Taipei in the Palomino World Series in July. This age group often comprises the top prospects for collegiate, minor league and, just maybe, major league play.
The latter goal is “… about as hard to accomplish as winning the lottery,” said academy instructor Ken Landreaux. Dodger fans, of course, will remember Landreaux as a member of the 1981 World Series champions; he speaks with firsthand knowledge of local baseball, having prepped at nearby Dominguez High School in the early 1970s. Landreaux and former major league players Bobby Tolan, Don Wilson, Eddie Murray, Enos Cabell, Ozzie Smith, Lonnie Smith, Reggie Smith, Lenny Randle and George Hendricks, to name a few from just this part of town, all grew up playing baseball at Gonzales Park in Compton or at nearby Athens Park. In fact, the overflow success of the academy has resulted in major renovation of the famous Jackie Robinson Field at Gonzales Park.
Why does a former major league all-star return to the “ghetto” to coach kids? “It just sort of happened,” Landreaux said just after a morning practice. “I retired in 2005 after coaching with the Toronto Blue Jays. I knew there was a need back home because funding to sports activities has been cut. Cities made cuts in the very programs which are beneficial to youth. It is a very, very hard road to professional baseball. These kids want to play in the major leagues, but along the way [the academy] teaches them lessons of discipline, character and confidence which can last a lifetime.”
Landreaux added that playing professional baseball is like “…most anything else in life. You must begin with a good education,” he said, adding that persistent gang violence and an increase in single-parent households have been prohibitive in terms of youth sports. “This is a safe haven for these kids,” Landreaux said. “It’s different today than in years past. The parks got dangerous–gangs and drugs.
Then the cities had to cut funding for youth sports [Proposition 13]. High schools don’t have enough money to maintain facilities. Here’s a chance for meaningful activity and an opportunity for many underserved kids to travel and meet new friends . . . and play baseball all day. We took these kids to Hawaii and Japan.”
For many years the Los Angeles Dodgers and Major League Baseball have operated a similar baseball academy in the little town of San Pedro de Macoris, Dominican Republic. Baseball alumni there make up an impressive list, including Sammy Sosa, Vladimir Guerrero and Adrian Beltre. There is a striking difference, however, between the two academies: American youth are privileged to attend secondary school, where as the Dominican youngsters have little access, if any, to regular schools. Therefore, they combine stringent academics and baseball in one place.
Hampton is pleased that the Compton facility operates in such a manner. “All of the kids must have their grades in order; you can’t play here unless you are passing your classes,” he said. “We believe baseball can open doors to other avenues of life. I am told that, since we’ve been in operation, the crime rate in Compton has dropped 15 percent. I’d like to think we’ve had a hand in that.”
One young man, Malachi Moore, advanced from the academy to the MLB rookie league in Arizona.
Though he came up short in landing a spot in the major league draft, Moore is now in Spokane, Wash., at the Major League Baseball Umpires School, on his way after all to the big leagues. “The Academy provided me with many opportunities, but mostly it has allowed me to be part of a professional organization,” Moore said. “I was promoted in the Northwest League (part of the minor leagues where some academy graduates have continued their advancement) and I am taking the steps to become a major league umpire.”
Hampton is a hands-on mentor to the youth. He offered this example of a love of baseball: “When I was big enough to hold a bat, I fell in love with baseball. We look for the passionate kids, the ones who show up early and stay late, and we can bring out life lessons. We want to make sure that the time spent here will be a valuable asset to their professional development.”