Nationals Youth Baseball Academy to target D.C. kids

June 4, 2011

Organizers of Sunday’s Congressional Bank Baseball Classic have said part of their goal is to use the event to entice District youth to baseball, which many have long shunned. Show teenagers they could eventually play in the event at Nationals Park and maybe they’ll give the sport a stronger look.

Earlier this week, plans for another facility were unveiled that could prove even more alluring for District children to step onto the diamond — and step forward academically.

Ground was broken Tuesday at Fort Dupont Park in Southeast for the Washington Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, a nine-acre, $15 million complex featuring three fields and an 18,000-square foot building that doubles as a training and educational facility for children ages 8 to 18. It is expected to open by next summer.

The land for the facility was donated by the National Park Service last June to the District, which is picking up $10.2 million of the construction costs, and leasing it to the Nationals for 20 years. The Nationals, who will manage the complex, are adding $3.5 million, as well as $250,000 for each of the next 10 years in operating costs, while Major League Baseball announced this week it will contribute $1 million.

At the groundbreaking ceremony, several lamented the number of District athletes who have spurned baseball for basketball and football. Many District public high schools struggle to field baseball teams each year.

“It’s just heart-breaking to watch the decline of baseball at the youth level over the years,” said D.C. Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D), who played baseball while he was a student at Dunbar.

Given the declining interest in baseball among District youth, this could be seen as a risky investment.

“I see the deterioration of youth baseball programs,” said Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo, whose background is in scouting. “We need facilities like this. We lose too many of our athletes to basketball and football. This facility will help get our athletes back.”

The facility involves much more than baseball, and that’s what developers are counting on to attract and retain children’s interests year-round. According to Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, the chair of the Nationals Dream Foundation, which is the club’s non-profit arm, the facilty is modeled after a complex in New York used by the Harlem RBI program, which has fused baseball and educational efforts over the past 20 years.

According to Richard Berlin, executive director for Harlem RBI since 1994, 97 percent of the children involved in his program over the past five years graduate from high school — nearly double the rate of those in the surrounding community who do not participate in the program. Berlin also added that 95 percent of those who completed the program last year went on to college.

“Virtually, everyone who comes through this program and stays with it graduates,” Berlin said. “That’s a life-altering experience.”

At Fort Dupont, the three fields — one regulation size, one with youth dimensions and one with softball field dimensions — will surround a two-story building that will house batting cages, pitching mounds and multi-use grounds on the first floor. The second floor, meantime, will have classrooms for schoolwork and also help children with social services and instruction on such critical issues as nutrition.

“You focus on quality, not just numbers,” said Berlin, whose facility opened serving 75 children, but now works with 1,000, 200 of whom attend a charter school that opened three years ago. “There will be a lot of pressure on the Nationals to serve numbers. You can’t go deep and broad at the same time.

“Ultimately, what does the work here is the quality of the programs and what we’d call the dosage — the duration and intensity of the programs. You come in here in the sixth grade and you’re not just here for six weeks in the summer; you’re here everyday for the next six years. The Nationals are building the exact right foundation for this to be successful.”

Gray said he was particularly supportive of the complex’s location because it will target children living in Wards 7 and 8, which he said house 39 percent of the city’s youth.

“It would be pretty big, especially in the Southeast area where baseball has pretty much been silent,” said Wilson baseball Coach Eddie Smith, who graduated from Wilson in 1999. “It’s something that can only benefit the community.”

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