Marlins need to pitch youth academy benefits to big leagues
Written by Michael Lewis on September 18, 2018
As the Miami Marlins finish their seventh year in a ballpark that will cost the public $3 billion – the big bond payouts are still due – we’re waiting for Major League Baseball to keep its only promise in the deal.
That vow was to open a youth academy in Miami-Dade County, with the league pitching in $3 million, to train inner-city youth not only for baseball but also with skills leading toward other good careers.
There were other promises, all also not kept.
We were told the 36,742-seat stadium would uplift Little Havana, that attendance would far exceed that at the field the team left, that owners would invest far more in players, and that we’d get winners.
What happened? Little Havana is no better off; Marlins attendance is by far baseball’s lowest, averaging 9,966; new Marlins owners have slashed payroll by dumping stars; and wins have been few.
Those failed promises, however, were made by owners who cashed out and left. The youth academy remains the only vow with any hope of fulfillment.
Baseball, which is losing African-American youths to football and basketball, set out in 2007 to find a Miami-Dade site for the academy, modeled after the first in Compton, CA. Miami was to get the second long before Marlins Stadium opened in 2012.
The big leagues have been telling Miami Today reporters ever since that an academy is close.
“Basically, it will be an extension of our community outreach,” the Marlins’ P.J. Loyello told us in 2009. “We’ll make sure that the proper kids are receiving the right instruction.”
“We are hopeful to get started and subsequently finish the job as soon as possible.” the executive vice president of baseball development for Major League Baseball, Jimmie Lee Solomon, told us at the outset of the 2012 season. “We are committed.”
“We have an architect already designing the facility so the project is moving along,” league spokesman Steven Arocho told us later in 2012.
“We will be ready to go once land is acquired and an agreement is finalized,” league executive Darrell Miller told us in 2013.
“We’re all over this like a cheap suit,” Mr. Miller told us in 2014.
It was a very cheap suit. Nothing happened.
Then, this June, Tony Reagins, senior vice president of MLB Youth Programs, told us, “Since the commissioner, Robert Manfred, has taken over, the youth academies have been a priority. Where this let off in 2014 was not a good place. In 2018, I think you can be encouraged.”
But not very encouraged. Late this summer Mr. Arocho wrote to us that the “status is unchanged.”
As nothing changed here, however, nine other academies opened elsewhere and three more are operated with league partners.
They are producing players.
Take Dominic Smith, who started in the Compton Academy at age 10 in 2006, its first year. He is now in his second year with the New York Mets in a league where the lowest salary is $545,000 and the average is $4.52 million a year. He played against the Marlins last week.
Dominic Smiths are few, but when he hit his first home run last year – against the Marlins – he was the ninth former Compton academy kid to be in the majors’ payroll league. Even academy mates who will never earn a dime at baseball won valuable life skills in free academy classes.
How many inner-city Miamians missed out on that training and its lifelong benefits waiting for Major League Baseball and this community to get their act together?
The Marlins owners know they have missed the ball. Team operator and former star player Derek Jeter told us before this season began that the owners were aware of the academy promise.
The contract between the Marlins and Miami-Dade for building a stadium at public expense with the team keeping virtually all revenues are vague about how far owners must go to make the youth academy a reality. It says in part:
“The team shall endeavor to maximize benefits for youth and other residents of South Florida, with a particular focus on Miami-Dade County and the City of Miami, and rebuilding youth baseball infrastructure through local baseball-related charitable organizations and Major League Baseball’s various affiliated programs….”
The specifics of the youth academy, though much discussed, were never put onto that paper. Former team owner Jeffrey Loria ignored the academy effort.
But present owners are trying to distance themselves from the Loria years. The least costly way is to encourage Major League Baseball to act, leveraging the goodwill afforded to new owners and maybe a few Marlins dollars to get the project rolling.
The Marlins can’t afford to sign a whole bunch of expensive players. But they could go to Miami Dade College North or Florida Memorial University or St. Thomas University – which has a former sports coach as its new president and a sports academic program, plus surplus land – and cut a deal for an academy site that could actually lure inner-city kids.
We need to light a fire under Major League Baseball to line up this program. The biggest beneficiaries would be our kids, but the Marlins could rank a close second in erasing the memories of the Loria years and reversing the team’s image.
Let’s play ball.