Watch: "Kansas City Urban Youth Academy" | 5:00
A Wednesday evening this fall, mounted under a mural of Kansas City’s baseball greats, a TV plays Game 5 of the National League Championship Series. Lorenzo Cain has the Milwaukee Brewers off to a 1-0 lead. The line drive to deep center is cheered by those watching.
Across Alex Gordon Family Field, a major league-sized infield inside the Major League Baseball (MLB) Kansas City Urban Youth Academy (KCUYA) in Kansas City’s historic 18th and Vine jazz district, young voices bounce off the rafters.
A teenager walks in front of the TV, down the stairs to the field, when Coach Cle Ross’ voice rises. “When am I gonna see you back here?”
The young man stops in his tracks and turns to the coach, only his head visible half-way down the stairs. He has a marching band tournament on the weekend, he says, but asks Coach when practice will be. He’ll be there for that.
The voices of the Academy's after-school program continue to bounce off the ceiling and through the wall of Darwin Pennye’s office. A large, square window overlooks the field and welcomes the sound.
"I hope for a day when the person who's sitting in the chair that I'm sitting in, is one of the kids that grew up in the program here," said Pennye, executive director of the KCUYA, from behind his desk.
It’s no secret that the $20 million state-of-the-art Kansas City Urban Youth Academy – the eighth academy the MLB has helped create, supported by enthusiastic community donors, Major League All-Stars, and a pledge of $500,000 a year for 20 years from the Royals to operate it – isn’t really about baseball.
"We are big advocates of the fact of we're not trying to develop major league players," said Ross, KCUYA baseball program coordinator. "We're trying to develop major league citizens."
In its first year of operation, the KCUYA has been up front about what it’s trying to accomplish: empower youth and build community through love of the game.
In 20 years, Pennye believes the Academy will be the epicenter of Midwest baseball, but it will be much more than that. "I hope that as I walk through the streets of the neighborhood, the business leaders, the teachers, are kids that were Academy kids; [that] we gave them a chance to, not only feel good about themselves, but we gave them a chance to dream bigger than they ever thought they might dream. To hope more than they ever thought they might hope; to be reciprocators of the love that was shown to them and then to be productive members of their community and help to make their community a better community. Not only in this Third District, but the Greater Kansas City area as a whole.”
This focus is ever-present in a question Ross often asks his players: "'Do you know who this facility was built for?'" And nine times out of 10 I get the answer, 'No I don't.'"
"And I always say, 'You.'"
Summer Sandlot was created so second-grader Brent Couch, Jr., could fall in love with baseball. Eight weeks learning the fundamentals provide opportunities that go far beyond the game.
Watch: Brent's Story, KCUYA | 2:24
More than 100 children from 6 to 9 years old gathered with their families at the end of May for the Academy’s first Summer Sandlot League. Offered as an introduction to the game, Sandlot welcomed families to the immaculate fields, many for the first time. For many of the children, this was not only their first time at the Academy, but the first time they had ever played baseball.
There were no registration fees – all programming is free at KCUYA – and no need for equipment.
A nonprofit run through the baseball operations, the Academy is essentially the Kansas City Royals’ ninth minor league affiliate. Besides being a high-functioning nonprofit, Pennye said Royals General Manager Dayton Moore gave the Academy one basic charge: treat every kid like that was your son or daughter.
"If that means buying another glove, if that means buying another bat, he has given us that opportunity to say, 'Treat everybody like they're your own.' It's the same thing that he tells his player development at the minor leagues."
KCUYA is designed to make sure that lack of resources is never something that keeps kids from falling in love with the game. "We don't want that to be the reason why you don't try this game," Pennye said, "because there's so many life lessons to be learned from this game – hard work, dedication, perseverance, overcoming adversity. And so why? Because you have fewer resources, should you be denied an opportunity to play in what was considered America's pastime? Why shouldn't you have that opportunity?"
That’s why at the KCUYA the doors are, literally and figuratively, always open.
"We want to make sure that these doors, as they're opened, can be a microcosm of what life has for these kids," Pennye said. "There is going to be an open door for you at some point, and that's an opportunity for you to step in and then to create your own dream. I think so many kids have stopped dreaming about the possibilities that are endless to them."
Baseball is a game of statistics – and while it’s “needs over numbers” at KCUYA – the early numbers are good.
Bob Kendrick, president of the national Negro League Baseball Museum (NLBM), which is a block from the Academy, agrees.
"We want them to dream of playing in the major leagues one day, but we also want them to understand that they have a proud legacy as it relates to this sport, and that there are other opportunities beyond the baseball field that certainly could be there for them if they set their hearts and minds to wanting to pursue those opportunities," Kendrick said. "In order to pursue them, they got to know that they exist."
Kendrick said as children are introduced to the game, particularly urban kids, the walk from the Academy to the NLBM opens another door. "They see people who look just like them who played this game as well as anyone ever played this game. Not only did they play the game, they owned teams. They managed teams. They were coaches. They were team physicians. They were traveling secretaries. They fulfilled every aspect of the business of the game of baseball," he said.
That history isn’t just a lesson for some, but for all. Diversity and inclusion are key components to the community the KCUYA hopes its kids will build. Dayton Moore, general manager of the Kansas City Royals, stressed that when the Academy opened last year.
"We can begin to bridge the gap between our urban, suburban, and rural communities of Kansas City through the games of baseball and softball," he said.
This summer, the Sandlot League represented 29 zip codes. And of those that reported, slightly more than half of participants were African-American, followed by Caucasian at 16 percent, and Hispanic at 8 percent.
Pennye said the team of 14- to 16-year-olds they took to the MLB’s Commissioner’s Cup in Washington, D.C., in July, exhibited the kind of diversity they hope for. "We saw kids come together that had never played a game together and play for the academy championship with kids on both sides of this city divide," he said. "When you looked around, we had the most diverse team of any team there."
He believes if the Academy is going to be part of the solution, it’s important to be able to bring kids and families together. "I think at the end of the day, we want to be able to help people see other people in a different light. We, as a staff, have tried to foster the love toward each other that we want to foster to the children.
"We want these kids to always feel we're approachable and that there is a safe space that you can come and talk to us about anything and everything," Pennye said. "That when you come here, you're valued, you're respected, you're loved, and there will be provision for you here."
"When I go over to the Academy, I see so much potential in these young people, and I see the opportunity for them to flourish," Kendrick said. From his post at the NLBM, Kendrick can clearly see the pivotal role of KCUYA in the community. For him, a cascade of thoughts and memories and reflections of what was, turns into what can be.
That’s not lost on anyone who supported the purposeful location of KCUYA. The complex is planted, literally, in the Negro League Baseball Museum’s backyard; blocks from where the Negro National League charter was signed in 1920, and where the great Kansas City Monarchs, Kansas City Blues, Kansas City Athletics, and the Kansas City Royals, once played. The district was a center of Black culture known around the world. The location of the Academy is both a statement and an investment.
"This community impacted not only Kansas City but, by the charter of the Negro Leagues being signed here, impacted a whole nation," Pennye said.
Kendrick goes back to something Negro League first baseman, manager, scout, and the first African-American coach in MLB, the "late, great Buck O'Neil," would say: "In our country, we don't often times celebrate the people who built the bridge. We celebrate the people who cross over the bridge." Today, while the NLBM celebrates those who built the bridge for integration, others are building a bridge for the future of this community.
"When I walk in a store around here and I see a kid from Sandlot say, 'Hey Coach Pennye,' – we're making a difference. That was the reason I came here," he said. "I didn't come here to coach baseball, to sit behind a desk, or anything like that.
"I came here because of the history surrounding it, to make an impact on a community, and to be a part of a great organization such as the Royals – it’s not like any other."
The legacy of the past connects to the future with just a walk around the corner from America's national Negro Leagues Baseball Museum to the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy.
Watch: Bob Kendrick, KCUYA | 2:26
For the Kansas City Urban Youth Academy, culture is everything – it exudes out to the kids, to the parents – the focus is on people.
In the 18 months he’s been in Kansas City, Pennye said he’s noticed the approach isn’t unique to just the Academy; it’s a genuine love for people that’s evident in the Royals clubhouse – from ownership, to Dayton Moore, down through the minor leagues – and he said it seems baked into Kansas City’s DNA, as well.
"I think we take that with us everywhere we go," he said.
For Pennye, how KCUYA partners with the community to serve the community sets an example other academies will model.
That’s one of the things that Kansas City has to believe within itself, Pennye said, that it is a premier player in the grand scheme of things. "It is important for us to be leaders," he said. "We talk about developing leaders here and so we want to set the model here."
Kansas City might not have the high fashion of New York City, or the glamour and glitz of L.A., "but there is a genuineness toward mankind that exists here that will allow Kansas City to be a leader," Pennye said.
The model plans for generations of Academy kids to become transformers, helping Kansas City to reach its full potential. "I think as we develop these young people, they’ll become the next great leaders."
He said that’s why more and more people want to come to – and stay in – Kansas City: "You may not remember what people say to you, you may not remember what people did for you, but you always remember how people treated you," Pennye said. "I think that's going to be the difference maker, and I think it's already the difference."
When registration opened for the KCUYA inaugural Summer Sandlot League, staff planned for it to be open for two weeks – the league filled up in five days.
"It's always something that kids wanted, families wanted. There's a desire to get back connected with the game of baseball and softball," Pennye said. "One of the things we'll continue to do is to talk with our base, look for ways to be innovative and creative, to talk with our kids and see the things that they like. We don't want to force things on them."
The Academy’s job is to meet the need, he said. "Never get away from needs over numbers. That will always be my rally cry here – needs over numbers – because if you serve the needs, you'll have the numbers."
Photos of historic 18th & Vine from the "Goin’ to Kansas City Collection" courtesy of the Black Economic Union of KC and the Kansas City Museum, Kansas City, Missouri.