New Orleans Gets Newest Urban Youth Academy

MLB Aims To Be Part Of New Orleans Recovery

NEW ORLEANS—Under skies that more than seven years ago unleashed a storm that destroyed the neighborhood where they now stood, a crowd of dignitaries gathered to celebrate the opening of Major League Baseball's newest Urban Youth Academy on Nov. 16.

Officials from MLB, the city of New Orleans, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, community leaders and former Negro Leaguers helped to open New Orleans' new Wesley Barrow Stadium. Deluged by floodwaters during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the community of Pontchartrain Park—developed in the 1950s as New Orleans' first planned neighborhood for middle-class African-Americans—now hosts MLB's latest youth academy aimed at attracting inner-city youth to baseball and training them to be among the sport's next generation of stars.

The academy will be based in the brand-new, state-of-the-art Barrow Stadium, named after a scion of black baseball for several decades in the mid-20th century. The facility is the prime result of a $6.5 million renovation project that replaced the former Barrow Stadium, which had stood as the jewel of venerable Pontchartrain Park before being wiped out by Katrina. The New Orleans site is the fourth MLB Urban Youth Academy, joining Los Angeles, Houston and Gurabo, Puerto Rico.

"It's been a matter of, 'How do we get baseball stabilized in the inner cities of America?' " said MLB vice president of youth and facility development Darrell Miller. "A lot of kids need a little more support to get the resources they need."

The ceremony included several Negro League alumni who were born and raised in New Orleans and, in many cases, either played with or were managed by Wesley Barrow, the stadium's namesake. One of those old-timers, Herb Simpson, said the arrival of the project will definitely yield results. He said local kids, especially African-American youth, should flock to the facility, a prediction he made after seeing so many such youngsters at the ceremony.

"It will help a lot, yeah," he said of the UYA's mission. "There were a lot of young kids out there, throwing and catching the ball."

Simpson, who frequently took the field at the old Barrow Stadium, said the new building "is a beautiful place now. It's a good ballpark."

FEMA, which was highly criticized of its early handling of Hurricane Katrina, played a key role in the historical aspects of the MLB New Orleans project. FEMA historic preservation specialist Alice-Anne Krishnan said Barrow Stadium and Pontchartrain Park were—and now will be again—a beacon of hope, with baseball used as a centerpiece.

Krishnan said the neighborhood "was a Camelot" for local blacks. "It was idyllic," she said, "and a big part of it was baseball. People just hold on to that. There was a lot of pride associated with (baseball). That's why it was so important to the community to rebuild (the stadium)."

Miller said MLB chose New Orleans for its fourth UYA because it wanted to be a part of the city's post-Katrina rebuilding efforts, and because so many people—from Mayor Mitch Landrieu to Rangers manager and NOLA native Ron Washington to a slew of community leaders—were dedicated to the effort. Miller singled out Landrieu for his contributions.

"He preaches the gospel of baseball," Miller said. "He gets it."