Just last week, in the wake of the “Black Lives Matter” movement, Joe Posnanski (a former Kansas City Star columnist) hosted a podcast with Negro League Baseball Museum president Bob Kendrick and Royals general manager Dayton Moore. The main topic of the excellent podcast was race and baseball, specifically African-American involvement in Major League Baseball, which has seen tremendous decline in numbers over the past two-to-three decades. In addition to talking about the importance of African-Americans on the game of baseball itself (Kendrick is an incredible historian of African-American and baseball history), Moore also talked about ways that baseball could increase participation and opportunities in the urban core for African-American athletes in the game of baseball.
And one of the things he mentioned was bringing back to Royals Baseball Academy model once again, as he mentioned that he and the Royals have been exploring ways to create a modern-day version of Ewing Kauffman’s once-fabled player development project.
For those who don’t know, the Royals Baseball Academy was the brainchild of Kauffman who opened the Academy formally in 1971, but actually began developing the project in 1969, the Royals’ first year of existence. Knowing that the Royals were a small-market franchise that would have a tough time competing for talent in the traditional manner of the time (draft, trades, etc.), Kauffman wanted to find a way to find and develop talent in a non-traditional manner. Thus, he came up with the idea of creating a “baseball school” where talented, but undrafted athletes who had potential could work year-around on their game and be taught by instructors who were directly associated with the Royals organization.
In many ways, the Royals were trying to create a pipeline of “hand-developed” talent that could help supplement their roster pool for years to come. The Academy was ambitious in that not only did it target players who came from non-traditional backgrounds (for example, Frank White, a famous Academy graduate, did not play high school baseball as Lincoln High School in Kansas City did not have a program), but it also had the goal of educating Academy members beyond the game as well. In addition to rigorous baseball instruction, Kauffman mandated that Academy members would go the classes at Sarasota Junior College and major in business and public speaking, in order to help give them skills and tools they would need should baseball not work out.
Richard J. Puerzer of the Society for American Baseball Research wrote a fantastic piece on the history of the Royals Baseball Academy in a 2004 edition of the “National Pastime“, and below is a great 2012 news story on the Royals Baseball Academy that interviews many people who were involved with the Academy during its three years of existence. The segment includes interviews from White, former Rangers manager Ron Washington, and legendary Royals scout Art Stewart.
Despite the baseball and social innovation of the Academy, the project only lasted three years, as it faced tremendous push back from many baseball traditionalists, even from those in the Royals organization itself (famously, general manager Cedric Tallis did not support the idea). However, despite it’s short-lived existence, Kauffman always said that his biggest regret as owner of the Royals was shutting down the Academy and not giving the project a longer chance.
Which begs the question: can a Royals Baseball Academy 2.0 come into existence and can such an ambitious project give the Royals an advantage when it comes to player acquisition and development like Kauffman imagined over 50 years ago?
There is no question that baseball has become such a specialized sport, and that the quest to be a Major League Baseball player is more cutthroat than ever before. Much like other youth sports such as soccer and basketball, baseball has been greatly affected by the “club and select team” culture, and the race to find and develop young ballplayers into perhaps Major League talents down the road has become a race that has begun as early as 8-9 years old in some cases. Unfortunately, the key to getting on the best “select” team usually becomes a matter of money. In order to get on the best “select” team and get “exposure” (whether it is professional or college), one has to pay for it, not just directly, but indirectly as well. Families have to pay for individual hitting or pitching instruction. Families have to pay for equipment. Families have to pay for travel fees and hotels for tournaments. And unlike AAU basketball culture, where sneaker companies can help supplement the costs (though even those opportunities are few), there is not much “financial help” for lower income families who want their sons to be a part of this “select” baseball process. There is such a steady supply of talented baseball players who come from families that can pay, and thus, there is not much demand for talented athletes without much baseball exposure in the “select” baseball world.
Major League Baseball has created initiatives such as RBI and the Urban Youth Academy in various Major League Cities to give opportunities for lower income families who want to play baseball. The Youth Academy in particular is interesting as it does offer urban baseball players a chance to compete against other Youth Academies from other cities, thus, giving urban athletes that “select” baseball experience, even though they would not be able to afford it in the traditional way. That being said, the Youth Academy is still a relatively new model: it first started in 2006 in Compton, California, and there are only 11 Youth Academies currently. Furthermore, only four are really directly affiliated with Major League organizations (Reds, Rangers, Astros, and Royals). While the Youth Academy structure is a start to developing more urban athletes in the fundamentals of the game, and giving them more opportunity than wealthier counterparts, it still doesn’t have the numbers or resources to compete with those who are deeply involved in the “select” baseball world just yet.
That being said, nobody believes in the Urban Youth Academy model more than Dayton Moore, who said to MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred in 2015 that the Urban Youth Academy “will be the most important thing we do in Kansas City, including winning a World Series.” The $20 million facility was opened in 2018, and it has already been a big success, giving resources, programming, and competition opportunities to young athletes who would not normally get those chances in their own communities. And while the Academy is also intent on building educational and leadership opportunities beyond baseball, Moore understands that the Urban Youth Academy could go a long way in terms of developing baseball players in the urban core of Kansas City, as profiled in an article by KCUR which covered the opening of the Kansas City Royals Urban Youth Academy.
“The major league team has to use their platform to grow the game at the younger level,” says Royals General Manager Dayton Moore. He also says the academy is a place to teach not just sports but leadership and community. “We can begin to bridge the gap between our urban, suburban and rural communities of Kansas City through the games of baseball and softball.”“Kansas City Urban Youth Academy Brings Kids Together Over Baseball” by Sam Zeff; KCUR.org; Published March 29th, 2018
The facility itself is immaculate, with four outdoor turf fields, an indoor turf field, multiple batting cages, and even classrooms for educational purpose. In many ways, it’s somewhat an updated version of the Royals Baseball Academy facility in Florida back in 1971. Thus, the Urban Youth Academy could not only help revitalize baseball in the Kansas City urban core, but it also could be a segue for the Royals Baseball Academy 2.0 model that Moore may be hoping to install.
For such an ambitious process to work, the Urban Youth Academy and the Royals Baseball Academy 2.0 would have to be synchronous organization. The Youth Academy could help the Royals identify and develop players while they are in high school or even junior high, a practice Sporting KC sort of does with their “Academy” youth development model in the sport of soccer. Unfortunately, high school baseball in the urban centers of Kansas City (especially KCMO and KCK) is not very good, as lack of resources and qualified instruction prevent talented athletes from making gains or finding much team or individual success. However, the Youth Academy could offer the kind of instruction that those talented local-area athletes need, as well as give them competition that can help them develop in their skills and confidence, and prepare them for baseball post-high school.
The Royals Baseball Academy 2.0 could be the next stepping stone for talented athletes who still need further baseball instruction. While Youth Academy members directly from Kansas City would obviously be the preference, the post-high school Academy could open things up on a national level in terms of recruiting. With an indoor facility, instruction could occur year-around despite the Midwest winters, and Academy members could take classes at nearby Penn Valley Community College, with perhaps dormitory living either nearby the Academy facility or Community College. Also, the Academy could also schedule against local community colleges in the Missouri and Kansas area, with the hope down the road being that Academy graduates could perhaps play in the Arizona Instructional League, much like the Academy did in the Florida Gulf Coast Rookie League during its original existence.
Of course, this is a theoretical dream, and I have no idea how Moore actually would want to structure his own Academy. He may want it to be in Surprise, Arizona, where the Royals Spring Training facilities are, so that Academy members would have less distractions and more concentrated time for instruction. However, the Urban Youth Academy provides a good opportunity for Moore and the Royals, especially with its facility and mission of providing quality baseball instruction to youth in the urban core of Kansas City. If Moore can somehow transition the Urban Youth Academy’s model into a post-secondary one, much like the Royals Baseball Academy, it is possible that Moore can develop a new pipeline of talent that could give the Royals an advantage over its competition. It may not happen in a year, but maybe 5 or 10 years, after the Urban Youth Academy is more established? Well…it can perhaps be a reality.
Baseball is a game of innovation. In order for teams to compete, especially small-market ones, they have to find new and innovative ways to acquire and develop talent. Branch Rickey basically founded the current “affiliated” Minor League system in order to help his small-market team, the St. Louis Cardinals, garner and develop young talent at a low cost. The “Moneyball” Oakland A’s used advanced sabermetrics to find talent that was overlooked by traditional scouts. Baseball is all about finding the “next big thing” and that’s what makes the game so beautiful to follow.
Perhaps a Royals Baseball Academy 2.0, with the help of the Urban Youth Academy, can be that next wave of innovation. It can be a way for the Royals to acquire and develop talent in their own way, with their own coaching staff and without the interference of “select” team or college coaches who are looking out for their own interests. It can perhaps give opportunities to athletes who may have avoided baseball due to lack of “college scholarship” opportunities. And lastly, it could give the Royals a deeper stake in the Kansas City community, while also helping the club be more successful on the field throughout their system.
A Royals Baseball Academy 2.0 may be a dream. But it’s a dream that could benefit not just the Royals, but urban baseball and its players, especially in Kansas City. Essentially it’s a win-win for everyone.
But it’s just a dream now…
We’ll see if the Royals will somehow make it a reality anytime soon.