Lob grenades, not softballs, to capture field of teen dreams
By Michael Lewis
Baseball has a new manager for its field of teen dreams in Hialeah, where sleepwalking play keeps hope dormant.
Unlike the fictional Field of Dreams in an Iowa cornfield, or the stadium built in Homestead 21 years ago that never lured big league spring games, the chore in Hialeah is to turn scrubland into ballfields.
The money has been waiting for years, but nobody hustles.
Last month, after 3½ years of sputtering work to create an Urban Youth Baseball Academy in Hialeah tied to the tax-funded deal to build Marlins Park, Major League Baseball put a new project manager in its dugout: Frank Robinson, age 76, in possibly his last key role in a 59-year career.
Getting some hustle will test a Hall of Famer who two weeks ago became executive vice president of baseball development and is tough enough to get the job done — if he'll focus on it.
Building a $3 million academy to help youth climb baseball's ladder on and off the field was a promise the Marlins and Major League Baseball made to the county and City of Miami for the Marlins Park giveway.
In January 2009, before government OK'd the stadium, the big leagues announced that Hialeah would get a youth academy, the nation's second.
But as local teens waited and waited, baseball opened academies in Puerto Rico and Houston, planned one in Philadelphia and said that this summer it will begin one in New Orleans — numbers three through six.
The academies train teens for life and prepare them to work. But baseball specifically wants the academies to funnel minority kids into pro baseball.
A just-concluded player draft proved they do just that. Teams drafted 30-plus teens, including the top pick of 1,100, from three current academies. Even the Marlins took one, from the original Compton, CA, academy.
What if the Marlins and other teams could actually hire academy grads from Miami-Dade?
They could have, had kids gotten the same top-tier priority as Marlins Park. Instead, the same curveballs have handcuffed everyone taking a swing at youth baseball.
The county Department of Environmental Resources Management was called the barrier back in December 2009. Hialeah Mayor Julio Robaina said ground would be broken as soon as the county officials agreed.
But in June 2010 county officials said Hialeah hadn't yet applied. The mayor replied he'd just repeated what he'd been told about an obstacle. Major League Baseball, Mr. Robaina said, is "waiting on me.... It's like a domino effect. Everybody's waiting on everybody else."
More than a year later they were still waiting. Jimmie Lee Solomon, Mr. Robinson's predecessor, said the super slow motion was due to Hialeah politics.
"We thought it was a little foolhardy to try to move forward... before next November's mayor's election," he said to explain why an academy remained pie in baseball's sky. Also, he said, the economy had dipped — plus those environmental issues.
Then Mr. Robinson got into the game. The city met with him in November, said City Attorney William Grodnick. "We showed Major League Baseball the plan and they liked it and the architecture." But the city hadn't yet gotten the site from owner Flagler.
After Marlins Park opened in April, the city still awaited environmental OKs and the land, which it expected by June 1, said Mr. Grodnick.
That brings us to last week, when Hialeah and Flagler still hadn't cut a land deal after 3½ years.
And Mr. Robinson? A spokesman said he wasn't yet moving because "he is just being brought up to speed on everything" — eight months after he first met with Hialeah on the academy.
Now that he's in charge, we expect Robinson-style hustle, not more super slow mo. While the city, county and baseball have dithered over Hialeah scrub-land for 3½ years, we've committed $3 billion to a Marlins stadium that's now in use.
Our youths, meanwhile, are missing a game that pays off big.
Mr. Robinson's pay topped out at $160,000 a year as rookie of the year, most valuable player in both leagues, a 14-time all-star, a triple crown hitting champ, a leader in home runs and more. But times have changed.
Tens of millions were at stake for teens who haven't been in our academy and will not earn salaries in the current millionaires' game.
Mr. Robinson isn't new to a helm. He was the first African-American manager and manager of the year in both leagues. The rookie of the year is no rookie now.
It's time for the man called The Judge to make a judgment.
He should get up to speed quickly and rule whether the Flagler site can be put in play or if we must go to the bullpen for new academy land. This isn't the only real estate in town.
Baseball keeps listing Hialeah as a future academy. That's close, but not enough.
Baseball promised us very little for our $3 billion. This slim pledge must pay off soon. Close isn't good enough.
It shouldn't be good enough for Frank Robinson, either. He once told Time magazine, "Close doesn't count in baseball. Close only counts in horseshoes and grenades."
It's time for Mr. Robinson, Hialeah and Miami-Dade to quit playing softball and pitch some grenades to waken the youth academy sleepwalkers.
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