- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 14, 2018

The Nationals Youth Baseball Academy in southeast Washington is about three miles east of Nationals Park, the site of the T-Mobile Home Run Derby on Monday and the All-Star Game presented by Mastercard on Tuesday.

But on Saturday afternoon, on a warm day with very little cloud cover, the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy was front and center for All-Star Week events.

With several fields adjacent at Fort DuPont Park, the academy hosted the first All-Star Commissioner’s Cup games for baseball and the Jennie Finch Classic Games for fast-pitch softball. The George Washington University Mount Vernon campus will also host Finch Classic games Sunday.

The All-Star Commissioner’s Cup, which is also hosting games at Gallaudet University in northeast Washington, included 10 teams from around the country and Puerto Rico.

“It has been a great opportunity,” Kansas City MLB Urban Youth Academy baseball program coordinator and coach Cle Ross told The Washington Times. “It gives our kids an opportunity to meet kids from all walks of life. Some of them were on an airplane for the first time.”

The Royals team consists mostly of players 15 to 17 years of age and includes those from urban, suburban and rural backgrounds.

Ross grew up in Kansas City and played in college at Arkansas-Pine Bluff and in the minor leagues for the Texas Rangers. His team was waiting to face a squad from Houston on Saturday afternoon.

One of his success stories is Malik Stevenson, a middle infielder from Kansas City who has committed to play in the fall for Division I Southern of the Southwestern Athletic Conference.

“It is an amazing experience. It is really fun to play games in a very competitive environment,” Stevenson said.

Stevenson’s grandfather, Ron, has been involved in Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) for several years in Kansas City.

“Baseball is just a vehicle,” the elder Stevenson told Fox 4 Kansas City. “If this vehicle gets you a college scholarship, and you’re able to go to school and graduate after four years, that’s great because you have a job out in the community.”

Ross said his players will attend the Sirius XM All-Star Futures Game on Sunday at 4 p.m. at Nationals Park and the Home Run Derby on Monday before heading back to Kansas City.

The Royals academy is right next to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, and Ross said that provides an excellent teaching tool for many of the students in the program.

“It order to know where you are going you need to know where you have been,” Ross said of his players, many of whom are African-American.

The student-athletes in the Royals academy do not have to pay to be involved.

“Sometimes the game of baseball has become expensive (such as with travel teams) and kids in the inner-city are priced out of the game,” Ross said. “We can absorb some of that … and develop major league citizens.”

Steve Smiegocki, the coordinator of baseball and softball development with Major League Baseball, said besides the Royals and Nationals other big league teams that have their own academies are the Houston Astros, Texas Rangers and Philadelphia Phillies. The All-Star Commissioner’s Cup also featured teams from New Orleans, Harlem and Puerto Rico.

“The players will tour the National Mall on Monday and get to take a photo with (MLB) Commissioner (Rob) Manfred on Monday at the Library of Congress,” said Smiegocki, who added they will also attend the GEICO All-Star FanFest at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

The Nationals Youth Academy is also the summer league home of the D.C. Grays, who play in the Cal Ripken Collegiate League. The Homestead Grays were a famous Negro League team that played many of its games in Washington, D.C., after its formation in Pittsburgh.

Last summer Darren Baker played for the Grays. He is the son of Dusty Baker, the manager of the Nationals in 2016 and 2017. The younger Baker hit .273 this past spring for the Division I California Bears as an infielder.

Manfred and Finch were both at the Nationals youth academy Saturday afternoon.

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