By Max Goodwin
In 2018, the Royals opened the KC MLB Urban Youth Academy in the historic 18th and Vine District, with a vision from General Manager Dayton Moore to bring people together around the game of baseball and grow the sport in Kansas City by providing a world-class facility.
Three years later, Executive Director Darwin Pennye sits in his office inside the facility talking about the mission to develop the youth baseball community in urban Kansas City and beyond, and for this place to be an important center of midwest baseball.
“We’re challenged to grow the game organically and to have a love and a passion for the game,” Pennye said, “but especially for kids that may have been priced out of the game and so it gives us a chance to offer free development here. And it’s a world-class facility.”
What Pennye is describing can be seen directly behind him. The window of Pennye’s office looks down on Alex Gordon Family Field. It’s an indoor turf infield where, on this mid-April morning, high school baseball players teach young kids the basics of the game.
The Barstow, Center, and Grandview teams are here for the South KC Classic, an annual tournament hosted by Grandview High School and partially played at the Urban Youth Academy. Players and coaches arrived a couple of hours before the second round games began to provide a free clinic for kids ages six to eight.
“What we want is for everybody that comes here to be invested in this place,” Pennye said. “We’re trying to teach our kids how to be investors in their community. One of the things I always do with this South KC Classic is put on a clinic to give all those kids an opportunity. Hopefully, it’ll even stimulate their innocence and love for the game that they remember when they were that age.”
Out on the field, the YMCA song is playing on the speaker system “Young man. I was once in your shoes,” sing The Village People.
The Grandview Bulldogs teach a few kids how to get a lead off first base, everybody is wearing masks.
“You may not be major leaguers, but you’re major leaguers to them,” said Pennye, who played and coached in the minor leagues. “You give them the opportunity to come out today and learn basic skills and have fun.”
The three south Kansas City teams on the field are all using this season as a learning opportunity.
Barstow, Center, and Grandview came into this season as young teams finding their way after a year in which everybody’s development was halted by the pandemic. Each team found itself in the consolation bracket of the South KC Classic, and each team with a losing record on the season.
“It’s an interesting situation for us right now,” Barstow assistant coach Max Williams said. “We’re dominated by sophomores so a lot of those guys would have been freshmen last year but they missed their season. It’s been rocky starting off, but these guys are learning. They’re learning good lessons young and I think here in a year or two this is going to be a team that you’re hearing about.”
Barstow showed that potential with a 13-2 beating of Sumner Academy.
Grandview coach John Barreca thought his team just needed to clean up mental errors and take advantage of solid hitting and pitching coming into the tournament. His team did that in beating Center 8-3. Center coach Dalton Ostergard was proud of the team’s effort despite the loss. In each team’s second game of the day, Barstow and Grandview played to a 6-6 tie. The results matter less than the development of the teams.
Players seemed to recognize that not only were they developing their skills but also the future of the sport. They understand the significance of developing the future of baseball at this historic location.
“The field is amazing here,” said Lucas Conard, a senior who plays first base for Center. “It helps people come together and grow the sport. You see the younger kids out here and that’s the future generation that can keep the game going for years.”
In 2017, Center received a grant from the Royals to improve the field they play on at Center Middle School. Still, coach Ostergard hopes to have his Yellowjackets team play at the Urban Youth Academy more often, possibly hosting several home games there next season.
Ostergard agreed these facilities help level the playing field.
“Absolutely, absolutely,” Ostergard said. “It’s nice to have a place like this in the city that opens up to everybody and now every kid is getting the chance to play.”