Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig joined Dodger owner Frank McCourt and Angel owner Arte Moreno on Friday to break ground on Major League Baseball's first domestic baseball academy, at Compton Community College.
The academy had been slated to open by this summer, but a series of delays pushed the groundbreaking until now. Construction should begin by the first week in July. Selig expects a March 2005 opening.
The academy will consist of two baseball fields, a softball field and a smaller youth field. Also included will be a clubhouse and a maintenance facility. Participants, chosen from area youth programs, will also have access to college classrooms and computers.
There are plans for a baseball vocational center, where students can learn groundskeeping, coaching, umpiring, sportscasting and other baseball-related careers. Selig said he envisions other such facilities in cities across the nation and was happy to get the first one underway.
"I think this is the beginning of a very, very historic program," Selig said. "We're going to give opportunity to people in areas that haven't had the opportunity."
The academy, owned and operated by Major League Baseball, is an offshoot of baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program, developed in response to the declining number of African American baseball players in the major leagues.
The number of blacks in the majors from 1995-2002 dropped from 19% to 10%, according to a report released by the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at the University of Central Florida. The primary purpose of the academy is to help increase those numbers.
"I don't think there is a more fitting place for the first youth baseball academy than here in Southern California, which presents the most diverse fan base in America," McCourt said.
Delays in the academy's opening were caused by an extensive renovation plan at Compton College. The college intended to build a performing arts theater where one of the baseball fields was supposed to go, so original plans for the academy had to be redesigned.
The redesign required new approvals from state architecture and environmental agencies, among others. Bids on the construction contracts are still out, but the cost is expected to be around $7.5 million, more than double what baseball announced last year. Major League Baseball, the Angels and Dodgers are funding the project.
"We had some issues with the college renovation," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, MLB's senior vice president of baseball operations who is overseeing the project. "But it's great to finally get cranking. It feels like childbirth. You know everybody is happy to see the kid, but the mom is saying 'I went through some stuff that you don't want to be a party to.' "
Although Major League Baseball will choose academy participants, the fields will not be exclusive to academy participants. The Compton College baseball team will play its home games at the complex and Compton-area little leagues will also be allowed access.
"Our show field will be the best field in this area and we want everybody to get a chance to play on it," Solomon said. "We don't want little kids in the area looking through the fence while all-star teams from other areas are playing."
Creating opportunities to play was Moreno's primary reason for getting involved. The first minority owner in Major League Baseball, Moreno isn't necessarily concerned with developing the next big star.
"My feeling is that these kids need to have a good baseball experience," Moreno said. "If they're lucky enough to ever get to the next level, then merry Christmas. To have a good baseball experience and the camaraderie and the baseball fun are the experiences that you remember forever."
South Los Angeles was a hotbed for baseball talent during the 1960s and '70s. Eddie Murray, Ozzie Smith, Darryl Strawberry and Eric Davis are all notable players from the area. Current players from the area include Milton Bradley and Coco Crisp.
Gerald Pickens, who has run the only current Compton-area youth baseball program for more than 15 years, said the academy should help bolster participation in a sport that has taken a back seat to basketball and football during the last decade and a half.
"I think it's great, especially for the city of Compton," Pickens said. "We have about 200 kids in the program now, but I figure that's going to grow with this kind of facility available."
Selig made it clear that even if kids don't become baseball players, they can still benefit from the academy.
"We're going to go into areas where, frankly, we should have been years ago," Selig said. "We're providing hope and faith for young people. They'll have a place to go where they'll not only good instruction in baseball, but instruction in a lot of things in life."