Thursday, September 23, 2010

Leaders chime in on potential of MLB Urban Youth Academy

By Stan Hochman
Daily News Sports Columnist

THE NEW indoor gym at the Marian Anderson rec center will be 85-by-115. So how will a kid catcher enrolled in the splendid, new Phillies Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy practice throwing a frozen rope to second base in the middle of a harsh winter when the distance from home to second is 127 feet, 3 3/8 inches?

"We'll do it this way," said Steve Bandura, thumping his index finger on a photo in an equipment catalog, and then dragging it on an angle from halfway across the short wall to the far corner of the long wall.

Yo, the sum of the squares of a right triangle's legs equals the square of its hypotenuse. Bingo! The kid catcher learns a fundamental of geometry while working on his throwing techniques. The best of all possible worlds.

Mike Nutter, the mayor; Mike DiBerardinis, the Recreation commissioner; Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's vice president of player development; Dave Montgomery, Phillies president; all made eloquent speeches to announce plans for the Urban Youth Academy, to be based at the Marian Anderson rec center, 17th and Fitzwater.

And then Bandura, the rec-center director who started dreaming this dream when Mitch Williams was the closer for the Phillies, dragged his index finger across that photo. Problem solved; let's talk about something other than that snug, new gym.

"No," he conceded, "it's not gonna be a brand-new, 5-million-dollar deal on 10 acres, but it's gonna be great."

It is gonna be great as long as Bandura is in charge, along with people who think the mission of the Urban Youth Academy is to give kids intensive baseball training to where they're good enough to get college scholarships. And, if the kids in that thin minority who own major league skills turn pro and make it to the Big Show, that's the cream in their coffee.

"Icing on the cake," said DiBerardinis, who thanked City Council President Anna Verna for finding $300,000 in her budget to help finance the project. "The emphasis is on getting the kids connected with baseball, while succeeding academically. If a pro career results, that's the icing."

Some quick arithmetic. Major League Baseball is putting up nearly $3 million, the city chips in with $300,000. The state antes up something, and a nice contribution comes from the Baseball Tomorrow Fund.

The Phillies will help with fundraising to maintain the academy, including a new "show" field in FDR Park. The club's groundskeepers can groom that field. And minor league personnel can help with the clinics the academy will conduct on a regular basis.

"The work Steve Bandura has been doing here is special," Montgomery said. "A few years ago, we looked at Scanlon [an ice rink in the Far Northeast] as a site. It didn't work out. And now, I'm glad it's going to be here, at Anderson rec center, where Bandura has done so much.

"You plant the seeds where you think they'll grow."

Solomon has been the driving force behind the RBI program, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities. And a huge factor in picking Philadelphia as a site for the academy.

"Why Philadelphia?" he said, repeating a question. "Because of the passion of the Phillies, of Dave Montgomery, of the city. Commissioner [Bud] Selig wanted to reclaim urban America. The academy is not just to create major league players, although 50 kids have already signed out of Compton [in California, another academy site].

"But the number I'm proud of is the more than 150 kids in college on baseball or softball scholarships. And the really big number is the 2,500 kids who have been through that academy, that welcomes those kids in the hours after school and before Mom comes home."

You can't measure it by numbers alone.

"Youngsters need mentors," said Darrell Miller, vice president, youth and facility development. "Youngsters need leadership. They need someone to inspire them to do more than they ever thought they could do. The real mission of the academies is to teach kids about life."

Bandura said "Amen" under his breath.

"We're going to offer educational opportunities, tutoring, mentoring, SAT prep," he said out loud. "It's going to be an intervention in the lives of so many kids."

How many?

"We should be able to handle 270 kids, 180 boys, 90 girls, getting the full service, academic training, fitness center, the works. Add kids coming to clinics, to camps, we could impact 1500 kids yearly.

"The goal is to produce college graduates. The baseball side of it is to get those kids ready to play at the college level, whatever level it may be, D-I down to NAIA.

"Preparing them academically, socially, emotionally to graduate from college. Helping to market kids to colleges. Helping them choose the college. Too many kids pick a school without even seeing it.

"Our goal is to stay with these kids through their high school years, the definitive years, when you grow up in an area that's not good. Those are the years where the environment can take them away."

Is he the dean?

"Chief muckety-muck," he said, chuckling. "Actually, roles haven't been defined. But I plan to be here 7 days a week." *

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