Cutting-edge baseball academy about to open at 18th & Vine, but who will come play?

How KC's Urban Youth Academy will draw players from its community

The Urban Youth Academy has a directive to serve Kansas City's urban core. Its director and outreach coordinator plan to make sure of it.
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The Urban Youth Academy has a directive to serve Kansas City's urban core. Its director and outreach coordinator plan to make sure of it.

The rickety backstop fence is gone. The squeaky aluminum benches, replaced. The cratered outfield grass that puddled at the lightest spring rains has been uprooted. The infield, with its clumpy dirt that would send routine ground balls ricocheting erratically, is now a memory.

Now at Parade Park — once home to that unremarkable baseball field — sits the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, a gleaming $19 million complex sponsored by Major League Baseball and the Kansas City Royals.

Its goal: Change the downward trajectory of baseball and softball in Kansas City’s urban core. Now that the academy is almost built, organizers are working to ensure that players from that community will indeed come.

“When you put a title on it that says Urban Youth Academy, you are now bound to live out that name,” says the academy’s new director, Darwin Pennye. But with the number of African-American major league players at its lowest point in decades and with scant baseball programs in urban schools, his job is cut out for him.

“I know people are wondering: If there isn’t that many kids from urban communities playing baseball, how do you plan on getting them down there?” Pennye says. “But a big part of that problem has been access. These kids haven’t been introduced to the game. If you introduce kids to the game, I believe they’ll play.”

Pennye contends that there will be no better introduction in Kansas City than the academy, set to fully open early next year.

Spread out on more than half of the park’s 20 acres in the 18th and Vine Jazz District, the academy features four completed state-of-the-art fields — two regulation baseball fields, one softball and one Little League — and a 40,000-square-foot indoor facility still under construction that will include another field, batting and pitching cages, administrative offices and classrooms to teach all aspects of the sport as a business. The project also includes renovated basketball and tennis courts and an expanded walking trail around the complex.

The academy is the ninth MLB-sponsored facility of its kind (cities like Compton, Calif., Houston and Pittsburgh have also been gifted complexes) but by far the most ambitious.

Hundreds of urban core kids ages 6-18 will have the opportunity to play baseball and softball on the best fields money can buy. Infields and outfields are plastered with pristine, pine-green artificial turf, with Royals emblems emblazoned near the enclosed concrete dugouts. Fifty-foot-tall lights and protective netting reach toward the sky. A press box hovers above the main field.

These fields have already hosted the Kansas City School District’s Interscholastic League and a few clinics and games for the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Kansas City’s RBI programs.

Need help judging pop flies? Want to learn how to throw a curve ball? How about hit one? The academy’s staff — a cadre of professional baseball experts hired by the MLB and the Royals — will offer clinics to hone kids’ skills.

The indoor facility is expected to open by the beginning of 2018. There, students will be introduced to the other sides of the game: umpiring, ushering, groundskeeping, sports writing and more.

And the best part? Everything is free.

dayton moore
Royals general manager Dayton Moore spoke at the Urban Youth Academy’s groundbreaking ceremony in April 2016. Moore has been one of the academy’s biggest boosters, calling it “as important as anything we do.” File photo by Rich Sugg rsugg@kcstar.com

The academy is a dream project of Royals general manager Dayton Moore, one he called “as important as anything we do” in announcing the project in 2015. Its more than $500,000 annual upkeep will be wholly managed by the Royals organization for the next 20 years.

The only challenge now is making sure the community the academy was built for knows about the academy. And that kids show up and take advantage. A formidable job bestowed upon Pennye.

Pennye is a lifetime baseball guy. A native Texan, the 51-year-old grew up in Temple and Houston learning America’s game with the Boys & Girls Clubs. He would go on to play in college and the minor leagues within the Houston, Pittsburgh, Chicago Cubs, and Montreal farm systems before transitioning into coaching and private instruction.

He says his decision to apply for the director job was about more than just baseball: “If all I wanted was to just be around baseball, I could have stayed in Houston,” he says. “I wanted to be a part of something bigger. This project to me has the potential to impact not only a community but its next generation of athletes as well.”

While the indoor facility is being finished, Pennye and other academy employees work from Kauffman Stadium.

Staring out at the Royals’ field, Pennye says, “I want to be able to come here one day and look down at one of the kids playing and say, ‘That’s an academy kid.’ Maybe you see an umpire: ‘That’s an academy kid.’ I see someone in the stands helping someone get to their seats or they’re doing what you’re doing, writing about the game,” he says to this reporter. “‘That’s an academy kid.’”

This is a perfect time for the academy in Kansas City, he says. With the popularity of the Royals and the game in general, paired with growing fears over football’s head injuries, “now is the time to step up to the plate, so to speak,” Pennye says.

The task won’t be easy. Earlier this year, the Racial and Gender Report Card from the Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport showed that just 7.7 percent of major league opening day rosters were African-American, less than half of the all-time high of 19 percent set in 1975. The numbers are even worse in college. The institute found that only 2.9 percent of college baseball players were African-American while white players comprised 83 percent.

Girls softball is so scarce in the Kansas City School District’s Interscholastic League that not one middle or high school fields a team.

But Pennye points to the 1990s influx of baseball academies in Latin American (such as the Royals’ Dominican Academy that produced Yordano Ventura), all aimed at discovering and developing talent. Now 31 percent of American baseball’s opening day rosters include Latino players.

parade park
Parade Park’s old basketball court and sole baseball field have given way to the KC Urban Youth Academy, which will feature four top-tier fields and a 40,000-square-foot indoor facility. File photo by Allison Long along@kcstar.com

The challenge now lies, he says, in persuading urban communities to give this new academy, and Pennye himself, a real shot: “There’s always a little resistance. People feel like if you’re not from my community, you don’t understand my community.”

Perhaps that’s why Moore himself hired a local, Angel McGee, who grew up east of Troost Avenue, as the academy’s coordinator of family and community engagement. McGee is tasked with building a relationship between the academy and the community it was built to serve.

“For me it’s a bit personal,” McGee says. “I know the underlying fears, I hear it. But this is my community. I know what we’re dealing with.”

McGee and Pennye started by spreading the word. “First thing we did was go to the local schools and their charter meetings to present to the parents on what the academy was,” McGee says. They sat in meetings and gave presentations to nearby charter schools, including DeLaSalle, Alta Vista and the Kipp and KC Neighborhood academies.

After tackling their immediate backyard, the two expanded to the Kansas City public schools, taking meetings with the district’s assistant superintendent and athletic director. Next: community groups including the RBI program and meetings hosted by members of City Council: “I’ve been to so many 3rd District meetings I can tell you the day and time they happen,” Pennye says, laughing.

Says a supportive 3rd District City Councilman Jermaine Reed: “A major concern of Mr. Pennye and his team has been working to ensure that kids from the urban core are getting a first priority.”

James Sanders, the Kansas City schools’ athletic director, sees the academy’s potential: “It’s going to be tremendous,” Sanders says. He tells the story of a player at Southeast High School from last season who had a “hell of a fastball.”

“But that’s all he had!” Sanders says, laughing. “Now, we can get that same kid to the academy and teach him how to throw a curve, or a changeup. Think how much that elevates his game, how much more of a complete player that makes him. Think of the confidence.”

Sanders is also excited about the academy’s role in spurring middle school athletics. Pennye and McGee plan to be most aggressive in recruiting elementary school boys and girls. The approach, they say, will establish a base that can matriculate and learn the game through the academy.

They have done no outreach in Johnson County or other suburbs, home to top-tier complexes like Mac-N-Seitz in South Kansas City and Building Champions in Overland Park.

“If we wanted to serve Johnson County, this would have been in Johnson County,” McGee says. “The academy was strategically placed in Parade Park because that is where we wanted to serve.”

And if, say, a young baseball player from Overland Park or Brookside wants to sign up? That’s a recognized possibility but not something the academy is focusing on for now.

“The objective is not to exclude people; the objective is to meet the needs of kids,” Pennye says. “If kids from the urban core are for some reason not coming, then it is our job to get them there.

“Ultimately when a kid walks into our door, I’m not going to ask them where they’re from. I’m going to ask them what they need.”

Aaron Randle: 816-234-4060, @aaronronel

How’d they do it?

The $19 million Kansas City Urban Youth Academy was built through a number of sources:

▪ $7 million from anonymous donors

▪ $2 million from the city’s capital improvement sales tax

▪ $2 million from the state of Missouri

▪ $2 million from the MLB Urban Youth Foundation

▪ $1 million from the MLB Players Association

▪ $1 million from Royals catcher Salvador Perez (after whom one of the fields is named)

▪ $750,000 from Royals outfielder Alex Gordon

▪ Undisclosed amounts from former Royals pitcher Chris Young, country music superstar Garth Brooks and others.