This time last year, a damp 45-degree day would have meant no practice for the Alta Vista High School baseball team. Or maybe they would have played but risked injury shagging fly balls on a dewy soccer field turned makeshift outfield.
But this year? The team spends an irritatingly cold spring day taking batting practice in comforting warmth inside the Bloch Family Hitting Tunnels.
They field ground balls skirting across the fresh artificial turf of the Alex Gordon Family Field.
If an arm gets sore, maybe they'll jog down the shining linoleum hallways over to the KCP&L athletic training facility for a quick physical therapy session with the facility's medical staff. Or maybe they'll find a nook somewhere in the complex's nearly 40,000 square feet of space to take a load off.
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Medical staff? Indoor turf? Pitching machines?
It's mere yards, yet light-years away from the field the Alta Vista team used to practice on — a crumby old church parking lot and a soccer field.
"It's very humbling to be able to practice on such a beautiful field like this," says player Louie Tinoco.
Last year Alta Vista could barely interest enough players to field a full baseball roster. But now, with the new Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy in their backyard, the team roster has nearly tripled.
Major League Baseball and the Kansas City Royals hope every school in the urban core will be similarly transformed with the official opening Thursday, March 29, of the $21 million state-of-the-art indoor and outdoor baseball facility.
The academy will host a ribbon cutting ceremony at 9 a.m. prior to Thursday afternoon's Royals opening day game against the Chicago White Sox.
On Saturday, the academy will host an open house from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., when members of the community can sign up for programs, test out the grounds and tour one of the most talked about development projects in the city.
Designed by Populus and J.E. Dunn Construction in the 18th and Vine District, the academy features four outdoor fields — two regulation baseball fields, one softball and one Little League. Those have been open for months.
The big reveal will be the sprawling 38,000-square-foot indoor facility. The outside walls are covered in colorful murals of baseball players in hues of black and brown, Caribbean and Latin American flags and portraits of Kansas City baseball royalty such as Satchel Paige, George Brett and Salvador Perez.
Inside lies the MLB regulation turf field (equipped with bases that can be moved to fit Little League or Pee Wee dimensions), six batting cages, classrooms and an athletic training facility.
The opening comes about two years after the Royals and MLB broke ground on the academy, and a few months after the academy's "soft opening" last fall, when the outdoor fields were ready but the indoor facility was being completed.
During that time, dozens of elementary, middle and high schools in the urban core have gained exposure to the game via a top-notch facility that a few years ago seemed unimaginable. The academy has a full-time staff of six and a growing number of volunteers and coaches to help run clinics and day-to-day operations.
"This is the best thing that's happened to inner city baseball," says Kaine Weatherspoon, 18, a player with Lincoln College Preparatory high school. Like Alta Vista, Lincoln Prep uses the academy's fields for practice and games.
Earlier this month, to gauge community response, the academy invited kids from nearby elementary schools to check out the facility, says Angel McGee, the academy's manager of communications and outreach.
"We had to pull them out of here," she says with a laugh. "They didn't want to leave. That kind of reaction, that's what we do this for."
Last month, the academy hosted a high school clinic and expected 50 people at most. "A hundred boys showed up," she says.
"This is a great opportunity not only for our school, but for the community," says Justin Hartmann, Alta Vista's head coach. "It's a great opportunity for a rebirth in the community. It's benefiting all of us."
Tinoco puts it more simply: "This is truly a blessing."
For more information about the academy, visit the royalsurbanyouthacademy.com.