The Kansas City mayor calls it a dream. The Royals’ general manager calls it a fairytale. Projects like this don’t come around very often, or at least not nearly as often as we’d all like.
They are calling it the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy. The possibilities are incredible. On the surface, they will be teaching baseball to kids from 6 to 18 years old, but really, they want to be doing much more than that.
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The academy is set to open next fall in the 18th and Vine District, in Parade Park behind the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, funded by local and state government, and Major League Baseball and its players association.
The Royals will run it with a budget bigger than some of their minor-league affiliates’, introducing and teaching hundreds if not thousands of kids baseball, softball and life skills beyond sports — at no cost.
There are a few similar projects around the country. The first started in Compton, Calif., nearly a decade ago. The one in Kansas City will be unique in many ways. The Royals will use their baseball operations department, not community relations. There is much more money being invested in this project than others, meaning more kids can be served in more ways.
Royals general manager Dayton Moore calls the new project “as important as anything we do,” up to and including the performance of the major-league club. The Royals will cover the operating costs — $500,000 per year to start — with no real chance of profiting except for spreading the sport throughout the city and region by making it accessible.
“It’s personal because I know if I was coming up today, I wouldn’t have the same opportunity to play baseball,” Moore says. “My economic situation as a kid, where I came from, I probably wouldn’t be playing baseball. It breaks my heart to know there are kids who would fall in love with this game who never get the opportunity.”
The first phase is $6.5 million to build four fields, ranging in size from softball to intermediate to major-league, all with field turf to allow more year-round use. Also, the project will upgrade space in and around Parade Park.
The second phase is budgeted for $7.5 million and features the construction of an indoor facility that will house a full-sized infield, batting cages, classrooms, office space and concession stands. Fundraising for the first phase is complete, and there is optimism the project will be awarded some $4 million in tax credits to help the second phase.
The indoor facility is tentatively scheduled to open in the spring of 2017, though that could be pushed up depending on the success of a fundraising committee that includes Moore, Mayor Sly James, former U.S. Sen. Kit Bond, CBIZ president Carolyn Watley, KCP&L CEO Terry Bassham, Carter Broadcasting CEO Michael Carter, former All-Star Joe Carter and Hall of Famer George Brett.
It fits James’ priority of creating more activities for urban youths, enhances the 18th and Vine District, provides economic development for the city and stands as a symbol of urban investment.
James says he’s as proud and excited for this project as anything he’s done as mayor. He says this is rare in its potential to do so much — increase economic development, improve the lives of kids, bring activity to the urban core, help with neighborhood safety and leverage public tax dollars with private donations.
“This is a can’t-lose situation if we pull it off right,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for this day for months. This is cool. I love it. I love it.”
The Royals are partnering with the Boys and Girls Club for an emphasis on off-field programming. Some of that will be in the form of life skills, and some of it in clinics or programs to teach careers around baseball — management, groundskeeping, media, ushering, umpiring, etc. The facility will be open every day, with programs running year-round.
If the academy produces professional prospects, those kids will not have any official or binding tie to the Royals. They would be subject to the draft like anyone else around the country.
But the academy will have a Royals tint, from flags around the complex to the instructors working with kids. The coaches will include Royals alumni, and when the team has roving instructors in town, they will often spend a day at 18th and Vine.
“The idea is to introduce baseball to every kid that we can,” said Kyle Vena, director of baseball administration for the Royals. “And this will be the Royals Way. These kids will grow up learning the Royals Way.”
Moore has been involved in the planning of this for some 18 months. That includes last year’s run to the World Series, crucial to his future as the Royals’ GM, as well as this follow-up season in which the team clinched its first division championship in 30 years on Thursday.
Earlier this month, he flew to New York to the commissioner’s office. He had never been there before but wanted to be the one to present so the commissioner would know it’s important to him and the Royals.
When caught in a reflective mood, Moore often talks about the importance of growing baseball, particularly among kids, many of whom are being priced out of playing the sport.
Moore measures the Royals’ success not just in wins, but in the connection built between team and city. Baseball has always been personal to him, and over the years he has often talked of wanting to build something for a community to rally around.
The timing for this, then, is perfect. The Royals broke their single-season attendance record this year, and by virtually any imaginable metric, baseball has never been more popular in Kansas City.
Around the country, baseball is losing ground, especially with younger fans. Maybe this academy can counteract that effect in Kansas City.
“What do we get out of it?” Moore asked. “Hopefully in 2025 and 2030, these kids are following baseball. We’re hopefully investing in the future of our game, to where there’s always a team here in Kansas City where families can go and enjoy the game, be united, and there can be joy and conversation and togetherness through baseball. That’s what we’re getting out of it.”
In a lot of ways, it’s fitting that this announcement is being made the day after the Royals clinched the division and in the lead-up to another postseason.
The excitement of the major-league success is great for the Royals, for baseball and for the city. But here, they are making a real investment and effort to build something that in most ways is more important.