The 2014 LSU baseball season opens at 7 p.m. Friday in Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field when the Tigers take on the University of New Orleans as part of the Major League Baseball Urban Invitational.
The three-day tournament designed to showcase the baseball programs at historically black colleges and universities makes its first appearance in Baton Rouge and New Orleans this weekend, and coaches at the local baseball programs are thrilled to serve as hosts.
Four schools – LSU, New Orleans, Grambling State University, Southern University -- will participate in the tourney, which runs Friday to Sunday, and the Urban Youth Academy in New Orleans will host a game and a college fair on Saturday.
On Friday, Grambling meets Southern at 6 p.m. at SU’s Lee-Hines Field, and LSU plays host to New Orleans at 7 p.m. at Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field. Southern will meet Grambling again on Saturday at 1 p.m. at Wesley Barrow Stadium in New Orleans, while LSU and UNO meet at 2 p.m. Saturday at Zephyr Field in Metairie, La.
The event concludes Sunday with two games at Alex Box Stadium, Skip Bertman Field – UNO vs. Southern at Noon, and LSU vs. Grambling at 4 p.m. Both games on Sunday will be televised by the MLB Network.
Houston hosted the Urban Invitational for the last two years, and the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., played host for a few seasons before that. But now, with the brand-new facility at Wesley Barrow Stadium, New Orleans can get its community excited about the present and the future.
More than 1,000 kids get a chance to work out at the New Orleans Urban Youth Academy, which opened its doors for the first time in November 2012. Eddie Davis, the director of the New Orleans academy, said that kids get more than baseball and softball when they come to the facility.
The New Orleans academy provides after-school tutoring for each of the students, and the facility provides a course in broadcasting. There are also opportunities for local residents to attend camps for umpiring and field maintenance, as well as scouting seminars and coaching clinics.
The idea, at the end of the day, is to improve the opportunities for people in the area and to expose them to all the different ways that baseball can change their lives. And now that the Urban Invitational is in town, the local kids can see that their hard work can result in a chance to go to college.
"When I think about the benefits this tournament provides for the community, I think of hope, I think of inspiration and I think of confidence," said Davis. "This tournament gives these kids hope that they can play at a higher level. It also gives a sense of hope to the community that they can see achievement. If they work hard, they can achieve something higher. ... If you do what it takes and put in the hard work, you can play in college. You can be successful, not only in [sports] but also in school."
Ron Maestri, the coach at University of New Orleans, provided some high praise for the Urban Youth Academy mission on Tuesday. Maestri, who coached at UNO from 1970 to 1984 and served as athletic director from 1979 to 2000, said that the facility is exactly what the city needed.
The Urban Youth Academy is right across the street from the UNO campus, and Maestri said he's gotten to see it multiple times for clinics and other events. The facility is "nothing short of sensational," he said, and MLB's involvement might be "the best thing that's ever happened to this city."
"I've been here for 40-something years," said Maestri. "The inner city -- not just after Katrina, but pre-Katrina -- like many large cities, the recreational programs have suffered and the opportunities for these young kids are very limited. ...We have so many young kids, African-American kids, in this community. There are plenty of great baseball players. I've always said, 'We're a sport that has 11.7 scholarships, and we've got a squad list of 34 or 35 [players].' We need to get more scholarships and more of these academies where kids can show what they can do. And give them the opportunity to play."
The Urban Youth Academy has certainly done that. Between the three facilities -- Compton, Houston and New Orleans -- MLB reaches up to 10,000 inner-city children on an annual basis. Two more academies -- one in Philadelphia and one in Cincinnati -- are expected to open in 2014.
James Cooper, the coach at Grambling State, knows how important it is to get added exposure. He hopes the Urban Invitational will give him a chance to showcase the level of baseball played in the Southwestern Athletic Conference, and it's also a chance to beat Southern on a big stage.
"This will be Grambling's third time in the event," said Cooper. "I actually called [Southern University coach Roger] Cador and asked him, 'How can we be a part of it?' Because I thought it would be good for Grambling to be a part of the event. He called the appropriate people and made it happen. I really thank him for that. But it gives us a chance to expose the nation not only to SWAC baseball, but Grambling State University baseball."
LSU, one of the nation's dominant baseball powers, will play the role of the heavyweight this weekend. LSU has won six national titles in baseball, and they've all come since 1990. Coach Paul Mainieri won one of those titles, in 2009, and said that he's thrilled to be a part of the tourney.
Mainieri played under Maestri at the University of New Orleans, and now he'll have a chance to square off against his mentor twice in two days. LSU will play host to the University of New Orleans on Friday night, and then the two teams will meet again at Zephyr Field on Saturday.
"Just playing UNO was special to me, but when Maestri returned out of retirement to be the coach, it obviously added a whole new storyline to the games," said Mainieri. "Let me just say this: Ron Maestri, outside of my father, has been the most influential person in my life. It was many years ago when I played for him, but I don't think he and I have gone a month in our lifetime since then [without having] talked to each other on the telephone or seeing each other in person. In the eight years since I've been back in Baton Rouge, we get to talk and see each other much more frequently."
They get to see each other more frequently, and now they get to compete. But in another way, they get to collaborate. All four coaches are ardent advocates for baseball and for their region, and even if they're playing each other on the field, they're excited about the future of the game in New Orleans.
"It's amazing the number of kids that are already participating in less than a year," said Maestri of the local youth academy. "And as I mentioned, it should be the single best thing that has ever happened to this city. With the crime rates in larger cities and kids not having an opportunity, this program will be a model. And I think it is a model. ... This is a premier program that's only going to get better."