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Miller Helps Bring Baseball Back To Inner City
by Alan Schwarz
COMPTON, Calif --I've seen it. Really.
While in Los Angeles on business, I stopped by Major League Baseball's new Urban Youth Academy in Compton, an immense (and long-overdue) step in revitalizing inner-city baseball. When it officially opens on Feb. 28, after more than five years of planning, the $10 million facility will allow thousands of youngsters a chance to learn baseball from former pros and play games on big league quality fields, complete with stands and lights. All for free.
Its director is Darrell Miller, the former Angels catcher and farm director, who gave me a walking tour of the still under construction complex in late January. Among the dirt and cinderblocks lies the future of urban baseball.
ALAN SCHWARZ: Where are we now? It looks like right field.
DARRELL MILLER: Yes, we're in right field of the show field, where we're going to host the RBI (Revitalizing Baseball in Inner Cities) World Series this year. The two fields that we're looking at right now are Major League Baseball-specified fields. They are state-of-the-art--the sand going in right now, the drainage, the sprinkler system, the irrigation system, is exactly the same as it is in the Anaheim stadium, Dodger Stadium, the Padres' stadium. We're going to have 250 seats behind here, we're going to have a canopy behind home plate. And we have a berm down the right-field line like they do in spring training. Down the left-field line we're going to have state-of-the-art batting cages. The lines will be approximately 335, 400 to straightaway center, and you'll have pads all along the backstop, pads all along the outfield wall. So it will have a unique Major League Baseball feel to it.
AS: What is the sense of anticipation now that we're only weeks away from the opening?
DM: The pulses are racing. And from a construction standpoint, you see an unbelievable amount of hustle from all of the contractors that are in on the project. Also within the community. There are kids coming up here every day: "When are we going to open?" Little League seasons and all of the youth-ball seasons are ready to get going. So we're going to start our instructional schedule even though our fields and facilities aren't complete yet. There are a lot of kids who are really anxious to get going on this.
AS: What's this big building here?
DM: This is the clubhouse, the 12,500-square-foot clubhouse. Girls and boys will be able to get taught the academic portion of baseball--how jobs are available in major league baseball, minor league baseball, coaching, training, umpiring, the grounds crew, as journalists. In other words, there are so many areas that they can be gainfully employed other than being a player.
We'll go past the huge weight room over here. This is our strength and conditioning room, here we have Jacuzzi tubs and here's our storage room. The locker rooms are on the other side. This is not going to be a dorm facility like the Dominican Republic, because there are certain laws that we have to deal with.
AS: How are kids going to get here?
DM: The buses go right here. We'll have two vans on site, and we're going to work with the different schools. Moms and Dads or significant others are going to help them too, but we will have two vans on site to help with the transportation.
AS: What radius do you plan on attracting from?
DM: Our goal is to hit a 10-15 mile radius for the day-to-day stuff. We figure the kids that we're going to impact are mainly going to be here in Compton. They are going to be in North Long Beach, off to the right in Lynwood, Southwest L.A., South-central L.A. That's where just about everyone came from--Eric Davis is from South Central. Ozzie Smith, Eddie Murray, they're just right outside of Compton.
AS: And Milton Bradley's from Long Beach. So what will this facility do for the next Milton Bradley, for the next Eddie Murray?
DM: The complex will give kids the opportunity to learn baseball from qualified coaches and teachers--and ex-major leaguers who are from the area and really want to give back. Most of the fields that the kids have access to are not state-of-the-art fields like this. The kids will really love the way that they are treated. They are going to love and respect the game. They are going to love and respect themselves. It starts by us saying, "This is important to us, and it's important to you."
AS: We're back at the Show Field now. It's just dirt now, tow trucks and other construction stuff, but as you look out on it, what do you see happening right here in a few months?
DM: I see about 100 kids down to the left-field line running sprints, playing catch, getting ready for and participating in a clinic. There are probably 50 kids in the bullpen down here taking pitching instruction. There are probably about another 20 kids down the left-field lines in the cages, waiting their turn, taking instruction from an ex-major leaguer. You see the Little League field over there? We'll be splitting kids up in groups, boys taking ground balls preparing to play a game, girls on that far field taking softball ground balls, playing catch, getting ready to play their game. We'll have screens, backstops, everything else. There will be a lot of activity out here.
AS: How much do you have in common with the kids who are going to come here?
DM: I can't actually say, “I know what you're going through because I grew up in Compton or inner-city L.A.” I grew up in Riverside. The basic thing that I have in common with anybody is that I'm a teacher, it's what I've been led to do. Just because you're not from somewhere doesn't mean you can't communicate with people. You just have to learn the language of the day, and that's what I've done.
AS: Have players like Eric Davis or Darryl Strawberry or other L.A. products signed on to work with kids here? What kind of participation do you see?
DM: Even the guys that aren't the big names. When I was targeted by Major League Baseball to run this complex, I got 100 phone calls from all of the guys I played with and played against saying, “We want to help you.” So I feel there is a groundswell of support and a lot of guys saying, “Someone is finally doing something.”
Fifty percent of the kids that live in Compton don't have a mother or father, so they're living with a significant other. So a lot of the kids that we're going to influence need role models. They need to know that there's a chance to go somewhere else. They need to know someone cares. They need instruction about life, about baseball, about anything. So we have quite a challenge in front of us in that regard.
AS: To what extent might this facility generate major league prospects? L.A. is in a serious down cycle since the heyday of the Murrays and Davises and Strawberrys.
DM: I think anytime you get kids playing the game, and you teach them the game, the natural byproduct is that you're going to have people who want to take it to the next level. That will happen on its own. You don't put the chicken before the egg, the cart before the horse. Those horses will develop.
AS: What have the kids told you? What are some of the things they've said to you?
DM: You always get the, “I can't believe that this is actually going to happen.” And, “How much? Free? Really?” People can't believe that Major League Baseball is actually doing this for free.
AS: Can you?
DM: I always knew in my heart of hearts that someone needed to make an unbelievable sacrifice just to get this going, so I'm more proud than surprised. I just knew that's what this needed--an unbelievable commitment by Major League Baseball to step up to the plate. So, thank God they are.
You can reach Alan Schwarz by sending e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.