Nationals’ Youth Baseball Academy Is More than State-of-the-Art Facility

A view from the Major League-sized field at Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, which features two other turf fields and a state of the art, 18,000 square foot practice and classroom building. 

Looking west from the second floor of the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy, you can see the Washington Monument, Capitol building, and National Cathedral. Executive director Tal Alter regards the view as symbolic for a facility whose aim is to empower the youth of Wards 7 and 8. “There’s a lot going on in this city that extends beyond the few blocks where we grow up,” he said. “It’s one thing to talk about it, but it’s another to have kids see it for themselves.”

Funded largely by the Nationals Dream Foundation with contributions from the city government and National Parks Service, the nine-acre complex at Fort Dupont Park isstriking: three turf fields surround the facility’s 18,000 square-foot building, which holds indoor practice space, classrooms, and a learning kitchen. Construction is expected to wrap up in January 2014.

Modeled after Harlem RBI, a Major League Baseball program for inner-city youth in New York, the Academy’s mission is to use baseball and softball to promote character development, academic achievement, and health and wellness for kids who live east of the Anacostia River. In addition to hours spent on the diamond, school and summer programs will devote time to academics, nutrition and cooking courses, and a mentorship program. “A holistic approach makes it real,” said Alter, noting that most enrollees will come from low-income families and have fallen behind in school. “That can change habits.”

Learning at the Academy

Two tracks of academic curricula will be offered at the Academy: English and Language Arts and Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The 90 students – half in third grade, half in fourth – in the inaugural class will come from Anne Beers (Ward 7), Kimball (Ward 7), and Ketcham (Ward 8) elementary schools. Students will remain enrolled through eighth grade while a new class of third graders is added each year, eventually giving the Academy a student population of 270. Alter said that high school students are signed up as volunteers and that he hopes to offer them formal programing as the Academy develops.

“As we grow, I anticipate having programs that revolve around college prep and applications,” said Alter. “We want to have similar success rates [as Harlem RBI] – 95 percent of kids going to college, 97 percent graduating from high school.” Alter also hopes graduates will return to work at the Academy farther down the line: “I’d like to say that there’s no such thing as graduating from our program. Once you’re in, you’re part of the family.”

The Academy will employ eight administrative staff as well as six coaches and one lead coach. Alter noted that while the Academy aims to create a baseball culture, many of its students are unfamiliar with the game – and that’s OK. “They might fall in love with the game, they might not. But what they’ll come back for is the strong relationships and knowing that when they’re here they’ll be cared for and will have a good time.”

The Academy’s mentorship program is being run in partnership with Higher Achievement, a DC after-school and summer program renowned for its academic rigor and results.Mentors will work with groups of three to four students once per week for an entire year. According to Alter a strong volunteer base, some attracted to baseball, some to working with youth, and some to Higher Achievement in particular, has already started to sign up. Mentoring relationships “are where so much good can happen,” he said.

Both Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo and shortstop Ian Desmond sit on the Academy’s board, and Alter is hopeful that the team’s players will make the Academy a frequent stop on their way to and from nearby Nationals Park. The thought of local sports celebrities, typically accessible only on baseball cards and TV screens, spending quality time with at-risk youth is a bright one for the community.

Connection to the Greater Community

“Sports and fitness provide a venue for learning about teamwork, effort, perseverance, communication, and leadership,” said Higher Achievement DC Metro executive director Katherine Roboff. “The opportunities offered by the Youth Baseball Academy will help young people improve their academic skills, leadership, and athletic skills.”

“This all fits into Mayor Gray’s efforts to clean up schools and get kids engaged in positive activity,” added Pedro Rebeiro, director of communications at City Hall.Projects like this tell kids that the city does value them, that they do have a future.”

The mayor’s office gave an initial $10 million to get the project off the ground, and Events DC, the city’s official sports authority, will give an additional $100,000 per year to support programming during the first five years. The Nationals have a 20-year lease with an additional 10-year option, all at $1 per year provided they maintain the facility and its offerings. Aside from baseball, the building will also be available for community events like neighborhood commission meetings.

Alter went on to stress that the Academy is for kids from Wards 7 and 8, but said that he welcomes interaction with outside teams and organizations from all over. The Academy “is a way that kids get to know their peers from other parts of the city that they might not otherwise. We want to become a hub for youth baseball for the city and region.”

While the Academy is the only youth baseball program in DC directly affiliated with a major league team, Alter said Elementary Baseball, Field of Dreams, and Ward 7 Baseball Academy are among the laudable organizations whose ranks he is excited to join. “I’m a native Washingtonian and a baseball person,” he noted, “and I’ve been involved in nonprofit youth development for 13 years. To reintroduce baseball to a community that has gone more than a generation without it in any real scope or size is a tremendous opportunity.”

Those interested in the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy mentorship program should contact tal.alter@nationals.comor