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Reds Youth Academy Is 'Like A True Family'

Seven-year-old Zayvion Moreland stands on third base waiting for the hit. He waits to hear the crack of a bat hitting a ball and makes a dash for home, stumbling as he scores the run. Not all the kids are as focused. One holds a bat between his legs like he's riding a broomstick. Another cries to his mom that he wants water. Just getting kids through the door is exactly what Charley Frank, Reds Community Fund executive director, wants to see at the nearly $8 million P&G MLB Cincinnati Reds Youth Academy.

"I think that's one of the biggest challenges compared to a generation or two ago," he said. "Kids were learning baseball - almost like a language - in the household."

However, Frank says baseball has been losing out to a lot of other sports, like basketball and football. That's true of viewership and participation, especially among young Black athletes and those in urban areas.

"We've lost a generation or more of the young Black athletes," he said. "The numbers in Major League Baseball, the numbers at Division 1 college baseball have been dropping precipitously for 20 to 30 years." 

Major League Baseball decided to get proactive and intervene in this downhill trend roughly 15 years ago. In 2006, the league opened its first youth academy in Compton, California, to get a more diverse group of kids interested in the game. 

The Cincinnati Reds began working to get a youth academy here in 2009. City officials recommended Roselawn Park, where four fields already existed.  

"When they brought us here, it felt like the right place to go," Frank said. "Major League Baseball loved it right away. Our ownership almost instantly agreed because it was centrally located, it was urban, it was close to most major thoroughfares. It just made all the sense in the world." 

MLB teamed up with P&G and other major sponsors to raise enough money to open the youth academy in 2014.

Since then, thousands of people annually use four outdoor fields and the 34,000-square foot indoor facility. That includes an indoor synthetic turf field, weight room, pitching tunnels and batting cages.

"All the activities that go on here, with precious few exceptions, are completely free of charge, including the layers of educational programs for our high school students," Frank said.

That means teens who take part in the program get a chance to learn softball or baseball and get help with homework and SAT or ACT prep. There are even classrooms set aside for studying.

Jerome Wright is the Reds Youth Academy director. He oversees day-to-day activities at the facility. He's joined by several staff members and volunteers — often former academy players — who chip in.

He points out their pictures on a hall of fame wall commemorating past players. Next to it is the academy's Guinness World Record plaque.

"So during the All Star game, we had basically all the fields going all at the same time. And we had kids throwing the ball to get together playing catch, and we got the Guinness World Record for that."

He says bolstering that kind of community participation is the whole point. 

"So all of the kids coming in, if they don't have any equipment or anything like that, we'll provide that for them. All the teams that we we support, we provide them with equipment, bags, uniforms, things like that," he said. "We are just trying to level the playing field for the underserved community to go to the next level."

Wright says the program works. There are students who've received $20,000 scholarships from MLB to play baseball or softball in college. Just this year, 14 students from the academy and Major League Baseball's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities program signed on to play baseball at the collegiate level. Four are going to historically Black colleges and universities. 

Nijel Davis, 18, is one of them.

"Coming from an urban background, you don't get the opportunity to play with a lot of African Americans in such a caucasian-dominated sport," he said. "And I think that it's really important that the academy really sort of enforced that ... just to get the love for the game back in a community." 

Davis is a first and third baseman. He started going to the academy when he was about 11. Other baseball summer programs were just too expensive.

"The Reds, they let you play, they let you play, regardless, all of that," Davis said. "And they pretty much let you do that at such a low price. And that's what really turned me on to that program. So, once I was able to get connected and see what they were about, and see some of the facilities, I knew that that was going to be my home for years to come."

Davis says he took advantage of the academic help the academy provided and it helped him graduate from Archbishop Moeller High School with a weighted 4.2 GPA. With those grades and his performance on the field, he got academic and athletic scholarships to attend Morehouse College this fall. He credits his opportunity to the coaches and staff at the academy. 

"It's just, it's more than just the baseball program. I would say it's like a true family."

To see more photos from the Reds Youth Academy, click the photo above. 

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 Round the Corner is our community storytelling initiative, shining the light on the fascinating people, businesses, history and events that make Greater Cincinnati such a fascinating place to live, work and raise a family. Read more stories here.