THEY ARE FINALLY going to build that Urban Youth Academy we were promised 23 months ago, first multisite campus, first cold-weather city. The light at the end of the cluttered, narrow tunnel may be a bulldozer after all.
"We're going to get it built," Frank Robinson growled the other day, "and we're going to do it right!"
Frank Robinson? Yep, that Frank Robinson, MVP in both leagues, first black manager in major league baseball. Robinson's voice always had gravel in it. His tone always had steel. He will turn 77 at the end of this month, and there are easier things he could be doing than turning blueprints into buildings.
"They tell me I should be standing on some golf course," Robinson grumbled. "I don't want to be standing on some golf course. I want to be out there, encouraging kids to get involved in baseball."
And that's what the Urban Youth Academy will be about, when it becomes reality, a brand-new, top-notch showcase baseball field in FDR Park . . . plus batting cages, classrooms and an artificial-turf infield indoors at Marian Anderson rec center.
Kids sharpening their baseball skills, kids honing their scholastic skills, kids boosting their chances at a college scholarship. All of them benefiting from a partnership of Major League Baseball, the Phillies and the city of Philadelphia.
Mayor Nutter embraced the project that day, Sept. 22, 2010, standing on the steps at Anderson. Parks and Recreation commissioner Michael DiBerardinis exulted. MLB's Jimmie Lee Solomon sermonized about reviving baseball in the inner city. Dave Montgomery spoke happily for the Phillies. Promises, promises.
And then a young man named Demetrius Jennings stole the show, telling the crowd how much baseball meant to him, that he was headed toward medical school and would return someday as Dr. Demetrius Jennings to mentor youngsters and nurture their love for the game, widen their horizons.
And then he shouted, "Let's get this show on the road!"
Talk about deaf ears. The show was stuck in the beaureaucratic tunnel for months, gathering cobwebs. Solomon is gone, poof, vanished. They gave the job of planning, promoting and overseeing the UYAs to Robinson, who was working various jobs in the commissioner's office.
"First time I've been asked to do something outside of baseball, the game," Robinson said. "First time on the business side."
They built Lincoln Financial Field in 22 months. They built the Eiffel Tower in 23 months. Why has it been 22 months from the time they announced the project without a shovelful of dirt getting dug? (Check out the sidebar for what has been done, a very expensive press box for Ashburn Field.)
"You've got a partnership involved," Robinson countered. "You've got Major League Baseball, the Phillies, the city of Philadelphia. You don't announce something and bang, dig some dirt. They have to cross all the t's, dot all the i's."
Calligraphy, it's not. Politics, sure. Red tape, yes. Territorial squabbles, uh huh. They announced an Academy for Hialeah, Fla., 5 years ago. Then the Marlins got a better site for a new ballyard and now Hialeah has a better chance of getting a ski lodge than a baseball academy. Those plans are deader than Ed Delahanty.
They did build one in Compton, Calif., on the campus of Compton College. Another one got built in Houston. One is near completion in New Orleans.
"Compton was first," Robinson said. "Our goal is to make each new one better than the one before. But there is no manual out there on how to build an academy, no guidelines.
"I know what the goals will be. One, seeing kids given experience in how to play the game, and how to deal with life's problems. Two, no, make that 1-A, is academics. The two things go hand in hand. We are not going to have one without the other."
That new field in FDR Park will happen first. Would-be contractors gathered at the site on Aug. 7. Bids are due Aug. 24. The job will be awarded on Sept. 11.
God willing, if the creek don't rise and the winter is mild, the field will be in use by late next summer.
It will take longer to get the renovations at Anderson under way, but they are talking optimistically about the winter of 2013 for the work to be done.
For now, we have Frank Robinson's guarantee that it will get built and that we will be proud of it. Robinson, wasn't he batting when Chico Ruiz stole home in 1964 and sent the Phillies on a 10-game skid that cost them the pennant?
He owes us one.