Major League Baseball has ramped up its efforts to diversify the sport in its clubhouses, front offices and among its fan base.
The league recently celebrated the continued rise of Tony Reagins, an African American, as MLB’s chief baseball development officer.
Reagins, a former general manager, oversees the growth of youth and amateur levels of baseball and softball, both domestically and internationally, operations of the Arizona Fall League and the streamlining of amateur scouting worldwide.
Some of the more notable youth development programs have produced hundreds of college players and MLB draft picks.
“Over the past five years, about 20 percent of our first-rounders were African American and our Youth Academies have been built in communities largely African American,” MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred stated in an earlier news release.
“Almost all of those kids had some touch with one of our Academy programs or diversity series events. The bigger we make those programs, the more diversity we will attract to the game,” he said.
According to a Good Morning America [GMA] profile this month, C.J. Stewart, who played for the University of Georgia and the Chicago Cubs organization, has spent more than a decade hosting high school baseball team tryouts in his former Atlanta neighborhood every spring.
But the players chosen are not for an ordinary team. They’re students handpicked by Stewart and his wife, Kelli Stewart, with a goal that extends far beyond winning on the field.
The team represents part of an organization called Launch, Expose, Advise, Direct, or L.E.A.D., which aims to help Black boys in low-income households break out of the cycle of poverty and incarceration in their neighborhoods through the game of baseball.
According to the GMA report, Stewart, 44, knows about their neighborhoods because he shares a similar background, having grown up in inner-city Atlanta. His love of baseball gave him a reason to stay out of trouble.
“[Baseball] was the goal – it was my reason for living,” he said. “It was my reason to say no to drugs. It was the tip of the spear for me for everything.”
Each year, the program hosts tryouts for young men who attend Atlanta Public Schools. The players, known as “ambassadors,” must uphold the highest standards in school and in their lives.
“Pay-to-play opportunities are out of reach for them but getting good grades, good behavior and attendance in school and completing community service hours [are] well within their reach,” Kelli Stewart told GMA.
If expectations aren’t met, Stewart said the young men are cut from the program.
Similar MLB programs include the Anderson Monarchs in Philadelphia, the Chicago White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE), the Rockstars Travel Program in Los Angeles and the Jerry Manuel Foundation in Sacramento. There are also MLB Youth Academies in Compton, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Houston, Kansas City, Texas, Cincinnati, Chicago and New York.
In the District, the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy provides children in underserved neighborhoods of Southeast with a safe and supportive environment in which to learn and play. The Academy is located in an area with some of D.C.’s highest crime, obesity, diabetes and school dropout rates.
With a state-of-the-art campus that includes training and education facilities, a full kitchen and three baseball diamonds, the Academy represents a place where youth can develop relationships and build character both on and off the field.
Such academies which primarily serve urban youth remain essential given the abysmal percentage of Black MLB players to start in 2020 – 7.8 percent – 80 players out of 900. These figures, according to USA Today, included the expanded 30-man rosters and those on the injured and restricted lists.
Like L.E.A.D. in Atlanta, the effect of the baseball academies is far-reaching, particularly for African Americans. Since its start in 2007, 100 percent of the students have graduated from high school, 93 percent have matriculated in college with 90 percent of the coeds earning scholarships Kelli Stewart stated.
“Day to day, they’re battling homelessness, battling stability . . . you can get to a point where you have no hope because you have no help,” she said. “For the young men who are part of L.E.A.D., they see people willing to help make a change in their lives.”
L.E.A.D. is an “incredible example of how baseball can greatly benefit the individual who plays the game as well as the communities that support it,” Reagins told the Informer. “More important, they understand the pathway the game can provide for young people who want to pursue their dreams.”