After an eight-year effort led by Washington Nationals Dream Foundation chair Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy officially opened on Saturday with a ribbon cutting ceremony that featured D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray, Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton, and even Wolf Blitzer.
On hand to introduce the new baseball and educational facilities were the entire Nationals team including Mike Rizzo and Matt Williams, as well as many members of the Nats' ownership group.
It was a special event for a special project, and just the beginning of what the Nationals hope to be a program of great impact in the eastern part of Washington, D.C. The complex is heavy on baseball with brand new fields and batting cages, but their mission remains centered around educating underprivileged youth in some of the city's roughest areas.
"There are eight beautiful classrooms and a teaching kitchen, that's really the core of what we are providing for the community. The after school mentoring, the after school academic enrichment is really just as essential as the baseball and softball," Tanenbaum said.
The 18,000 square foot facility is located in Fort Dupont Park, in Southeast D.C.'s Ward 7. It is open year-round to children in third and fourth grade, designed to provide learning programs for after school and summer breaks.
The focus is on developing literacy and teaching STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) with baseball and softball mixed in to the curriculum.
Though the Nats hope they can change lives with the program, Tanenbaum says the longterm goal is to create something even bigger in the surrounding areas.
"I think this program can be a major impact, but I think it can also be a catalyst to bring more programs over to Ward 7 and 8. We are high profile, we're the Nationals, so I think we'll get some attention that some other non-profits that have been doing great work in this community for a long time may not have gotten. I'm really hoping, and I think the major hopes as well, that we bring other organizations to this community."
Nationals players and coaches walked into the ceremony with the academy's inaugural class of students. They also got a tour of the facilities and came away quite impressed.
"It's interesting that baseball is the setting, but it's not about that. Baseball is providing opportunity for the youth of that area and beyond," Williams said. "It's about mentorship, education, diversity, and it all kind of centers around baseball which is really cool. The fields are wonderful, the facility is beautiful. But beyond that it's about giving these kids an opportunity in whatever arena that may be. For these kids, baseball is certainly there for them but there are other activities as well."
Stephen Strasburg sees parallels to the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, CA that is partnered with his alma mater, San Diego State University. He thinks the Nationals' academy can have a similar impact.
"It's amazing just getting a chance to talk to some of the kids there. Especially some of the older kids, too. Guys who maybe didn't have an opportunity to play baseball and play on a team and have those facilities that they put in there. I think it's going to change a lot of kids' lives," he said.
"I saw that firsthand. I remember my junior year we opened up the Urban Youth [Academy] in Compton. Just seeing a facility like that, and just seeing how much turnout and buzz it gets. Every single year they have tournaments there. I think it's going to be a huge impact for the community."
Mayor Gray grew up in Washington and is excited to see the Nationals giving back to the city. He thinks baseball is the perfect sport to help change lives in the community.
"Growing up, I was a baseball player. It got me pretty far. I saw not just what it did for me in terms of being on the field, but what it did for me as a human being. I know what it can do for kids as well. Baseball has not been that prevalent on the east end of this city. This is an opportunity to bring baseball to the east end of the city in a really high quality way. I enjoyed working with the Nationals on this. They are all in in terms of making this happen. The city is all in. It is a beautiful statement about the value of our children here in the District of Columbia."
The Nationals hope to help revive a sport that has run dormant in many of the country's most impoverished areas. They want to inspire the kids to play baseball and understand how sports can go hand-in-hand with education.
In a predominantly African-American neighborhood, the halls and classrooms are lined with pictures of baseball greats such as Jackie Robinson and Roberto Clemente. The scoreboard on the academy's main field was even set to the score of 10-6 for the ceremony. That was the final score of the Negro League World Series-clinching game for the Homestead Grays in 1948.
For Nationals' shortstop Ian Desmond, the initiative hits close to home. He wishes he had something similar in his neighborhood when growing up in Sarasota, FL.
"I didn't attend a school as nice as this when I was a kid. For these kids to have the opportunity to come here to a safe place after school, not only the love that they are going to get, but the baseball and the facilities, they are very fortunate," he said.
"I think every player can attest to this, that we've all played with guys as young kids that were much more talented than us and just ran into hard times or got caught up in the wrong crowds, things like that. It's keeping kids off the streets and involving them in education and really keeping them busy. That's going to make better citizens and that's the goal of this place. Growing up, I was fortunate enough to have a baseball team that kept me busy all day, pretty much five, six or seven days a week and it really kept me in line. I'm glad that we can give these kids something similar."
Desmond serves on the academy's Board of Directors and has played a central role in the school's opening. Tanenbaum explained how Desmond got involved at the ceremony:
"What is wonderful about Ian's involvement is that it's very organic. It has not been manufactured. I asked him years ago when we were doing a fundraising event, before we even had the land. I asked him and a couple of guys and he volunteered. He came in and got very emotionally related, how something like this would have been so wonderful for his younger brother growing up. He really, really genuinely cares about kids and he really loves this kind of academy program. He always says one day after he's done playing - which is a long time from now - that this is what he'd like to do, that he'd like to run an academy."
The Nationals Youth Baseball Academy's inaugural class includes 90 students in third and fourth grade. In the coming years it will expand through the eighth grade. For more information on the academy, visit www.nationalsacademy.org.
The Washington Nationals posing for a photo-op with the academy's inaugural class.
The main field of the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy.
One of the academy's eight classrooms.