SBJ/August 14-20, 2017/In Depth

K.C.’s new Urban Youth Academy to balance sports training, life skills assistance

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An aerial view shows baseball and softball fields and an indoor training facility set to open in early October.
Photo by: POPULOUS (2)
Kansas City’s new MLB Urban Youth Academy fills a vital role beyond providing inner-city kids with free opportunities to play baseball and softball.

The two-year, $20 million project, to be completed by early October, is situated behind the Negro Leagues Museum in the city’s historic 18th and Vine district. It’s a partnership funded between the Kansas City Royals, the MLB Players Association, the city and the state of Missouri.

Private donations also helped finance the facility that includes three outdoor baseball fields and one outdoor softball field — all outfitted with artificial turf for year-round use — plus an indoor training facility with a full infield, batting cages, pitching mounds, concessions and restrooms.

Populous, the youth academy’s architect, contributed $151,100 through its home office in Kansas City, and general contractor J.E. Dunn donated its fees to the project, said Carolyn Watley, vice president of community engagement for CBiz, the firm in charge of fundraising for the project’s second phase.

Royals general manager Dayton Moore, spearheading the project for the MLB team, and Kansas City Mayor Sly James are big supporters of the project, said Kevin Uhlich, the Royals’ senior vice president of business operations. The Royals have committed $500,000 annually over the next 20 years to cover operating costs at the youth academy, with eight full-time employees working at the facility.

MLB Urban Youth Academy locations

Compton Youth Academy
Darrell Miller, MLB vice president of youth and facility development
Houston Astros Youth Academy
Director Daryl Wade
Philadelphia Youth Academy Jon Joaquin, director, Youth Baseball Development, Philadelphia Phillies;
Rob Holiday, director, amateur scouting administration, Philadelphia Phillies
Puerto Rico Baseball Academy and High School Director Luis Cintron; Headmaster Lucy Batista
Nationals Youth Baseball Academy Executive Director Tal Alter
 P&G Cincinnati Youth Academy Director Jerome Wright
Texas Rangers Youth Academy Director Homer Bush
Kansas City Urban Youth Academy Director Darwin Pennye
In development:
Roberto Clemente MLB Youth Academy
in Bronx, N.Y. (DREAM — formerly Harlem RBI)
San Francisco MLB Youth Academy (San Francisco Giants)
Academy at Curtis Granderson Stadium in Chicago (University of Illinois and Curtis Granderson)
Source: MLB.com
“We’re treating this project like our lowest-level minor league affiliate,” said Kyle Vena, the Royals’ director of baseball administration. “Our approach is to treat every player in our system like our own son, and this is no different.”

A key piece of the 40,000-square-foot indoor building is classroom space to teach children life skills and career development opportunities. As part of the educational component, the Royals are in discussions with University of Missouri-Kansas City officials to assist kids on and off the field.

The team’s goal is to provide UMKC education majors with volunteer student-teaching jobs at the youth academy, although those details have not been confirmed, Vena said.

“For every young boy and girl that comes through those doors, our goal is to help them reach their ceiling on and off the field, as well as develop a passion for baseball and softball,” he said.

Over the past two years, the project grew rapidly in scope from its initial cost of $1.5 million as an add-on to the local Boys & Girls Club, said Dave Bower, Populous’ principal-in-charge. Other MLB markets have youth academies, but none are to the scale of Kansas City, Bower said.

At the Royals’ request, two of the youth academy’s three baseball fields were designed to the same dimensions as Kauffman Stadium, which includes a distance of 330 feet down the foul lines. The softball field conforms to NCAA regulations, positioning the academy for college games, Bower said.

In addition, youth leagues will use the baseball fields for tournaments. Apart from the mini-versions of “The K,” the third baseball field conforms to Little League standards.

“This is not just a temporary facility, it’s a full-blown commitment,” he said. “The Royals are using it as an extension of their farm system. They spared no cost and effort to make it first class.”

The Royals hired former minor league player Darwin Pennye as the youth academy’s director. Pennye grew up in the Houston area participating in the Boys & Girls Club before playing baseball in college, and later, with the Astros, Pirates, Cubs and Expos farm systems. He coached with the Astros in the minors before earning a degree in high school administration. Pennye moved to Kansas City, in part, to do something special that has an impact in the community, Vena said.

“This project is not just about playing baseball,” Bower said. “There will be opportunities to learn about broadcasting and sports writing. You don’t have to be athletically talented to participate.”


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