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Wednesday, July 16, 2014
Updated: July 17, 11:44 AM ET
White Sox program coming up ACEs

By Scoop Jackson
ESPNChicago.com

The problem with this story is that you haven't read it before.

Well, maybe you have in one of the too few articles that have been published, but overall the coverage has been so lightweight and remedial and without any sort of prominence, that I'd be surprised if this wasn't the first most of you knew of a "life-changing" baseball program for kids from the streets of Chicago.

Eighty-two people shot over the July 4th weekend in Chicago is a "Nightline" and "Good Morning America" national story. An all-black baseball team from the South Side of Chicago that competes for the Little League World Series gets maybe six inches of space below the fold in the Chicago Tribune sports section or is a carousel item with a one-day shelf life on ESPNChicago.com.

That's not covering or chronicling something, that's mentioning it.

Baseball -- especially at the major league level -- has been in a long spiral in the apathetically wrong direction in terms of African-American participation. The fact that just 8 percent of major league players are African-Americans (down from 26 percent in 1979) has been an issue of almost renowned commentary and concern in sports. No one can deny that MLB has been trying to do something about that, but at the same time it's almost as if nothing of real consequence seems to be getting done.

There is a two-lettered acronym that is appropriate to describe this effort but inappropriate to use in this space.

Yet, on the corner of 35th and Lafayette Ave., something is getting done and either no one is paying attention or few outside of U.S. Cellular Field seem to care.

Ronell Coleman, all 5-foot-5 of him, is the embodiment of a silent movement. On July 2 he walked out to the pitcher's mound as the rain drizzled on him and had the honor of throwing out the first pitch prior to the White Sox-Angels game. On June 23, as a freshman outfielder for the Vanderbilt University Commodores, he became one of the first players of his generation from a Chicago Public League school to participate in the College World Series Final.

In August 2008, Ro became a part of a program that would eventually redirect his life.

"If this program didn't exist," Coleman said, "To tell the truth, I really don't know. I'm not saying I'd be doing any bad or negative things, but the program is the reason I am at Vanderbilt."

He was a part of the ACE Program (Amateur City Elite), the Urban Prep Academy of Chicago sports. It's a program that can easily be associated with saving the lives of black and minority kids who attend public schools in the city. Tim King is the founder of the celebrated Urban Prep phenomenon and is recognized on Oprah's Angel Network, at the BET Awards and is a frequent guest on Windy City Live. But Kevin Coe and Nathan Durst are widely considered the "cornerstones" of ACE, even though they still at times get asked for ID or an employee badge when trying to enter the Cell and could show up at baseball's winter meetings and be known by no one.

And that anonymity is sad because the program they've basically built inside of the White Sox organization is one of the most successful urban-centric programs that exist in all of sports. Last year alone ACE had 12 players from the program receive baseball scholarships to Division I schools (15 scholarships altogether). And this year six are going to be freshmen playing D-I baseball (a total of nine got offers but three players were academically ineligible and are going to junior college).

Eleven thus far over the years have been selected in the baseball amateur draft.

"(ACE) was created because kids in the community, the same communities where you see the gangs, the crime and all of the violence they report in the newspapers, have kids that are playing baseball. And they are highly-skilled baseball players coming out of those exact same communities," said Coe, Director of Youth Baseball Initiatives for the White Sox.

Durst, the White Sox's national cross-checking scout, supplied a different angle of purpose for ACE that eventually could force the same results for the kids they've cultivated and guided.

"Our original goal was to do for everyone what happened for Ro and for Cory (Ray, a freshman at the University of Louisville) because we had nothing to go on. Public League players if they went to college, they went to HBCU's primarily. Which are very good institutions of academics but when you are talking baseball elite or football elite or basketball elite, you are talking about SEC, ACC, Pac-10 and places like that because on the baseball side we felt it important for these kids as baseball players to have every opportunity to go to the best schools that their ability warranted.

"At the end of the day what we are hoping for is if a player is able to achieve (going to prestigious universities and powerhouse baseball programs) then there will be that light at the end of tunnel and the younger players would see that and keep playing baseball."

Let's be honest, the cost of playing baseball is driving poor black and minority families in the inner cities of America out of the game. The game isn't free anymore and the inner cities aren't viewed as talent hotbeds like Latin America where hundreds of scouts are sent to discover the next star. With basketball and soccer being so much more cost-efficient for a large number of families and because football often pays for itself once kids reach elite high school level of play, baseball in most major inner cities has suffered more than any other team sport.

But escapism -- regardless of what corporate, creative or athletic outlet it may be -- when presented the right way with the right intent can make a kid who's been shot multiple times (as a player in ACE has been) or has been arrested for robbing cars (as a player in ACE has been) think about his/her future in ways that are not bound by their circumstances.

Most of the coaches at ACE have master's degrees and have played baseball at the professional level. For them, this is not charity. This is one of life's necessities that comes with being a part of a sport that they've been involved with for most, if not all of their lives. The results of their commitment has become the greater payoff.

"The Oregons, Missouris, Vanderbilts, Louisvilles weren't coming to the inner city of Chicago to recruit baseball players prior to the ACE program," Coe said.

Since its inception in 2007, 84 kids have received college scholarships to play baseball through ACE.

We've had kids in our program lose friends and come to practice the same day just to ease their pain. And I think the fact that there aren't enough minority players playing in the major leagues and the stereotype that minorities don't play baseball, we're here trying to kill that noise.

-- Kevin Coe, Director of Youth Baseball Initiatives for the White Sox
MLB has their RBI Program that is in place to provide better inroads for African-American kids to get into and sustain a more positive relationship with baseball, but that program overall is not an "elite" one. It does not cater to elite players who actually have the ability to play in the majors if a different set of opportunities were presented. And it does not specifically deal with kids who are students of a public school system.

The purpose of RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) is to reverse a stigma, to right a possible wrong of exclusion when it comes to a generation of African-Americans who seem to be left out of the game and left behind. The three-fold purpose of ACE (an unapologetic focus on both education and baseball excellence while at the same time providing hope to kids who are often surrounded by hopelessness) seems to be serving a greater need in a much more concentrated area and gentrified space. Although other teams have their own RBI programs, no other organization in the majors has a program like ACE.

Which is why you basically are not hearing or reading about it after seven years of being in existence. That's a damn shame of not only baseball but of us in the local mainstream and national media for not recognizing it long before this.

And just because I am writing this now doesn't absolve me from wrong. I am at fault, too.

Wendy Lewis, Senior Vice President of Diversity and Strategic Alliances, once said, when speaking on the subject of the lack of racial diversity and the struggles African-Americans face in baseball, to "believe in advance what will only make sense in reverse."

It shouldn't take the success of a Ro Coleman for this story to be told. It shouldn't take the success of Cory Ray at Louisville or Darius Day at Arizona or Jerry Houston at Oregon (all kids who came through ACE) or the future success of Simeon Academy junior Tyler Gordon (considered one of the program's next Division I prospects) for you to hear about a program that got them from the Chicago Public League to those universities or for us to write about it. The fact that the program has become a Chicago pipeline for hope should be enough.

"We've had kids in our program lose friends and come to practice the same day just to ease their pain," Coe said. "And I think the fact that there aren't enough minority players playing in the major leagues and the stereotype that minorities don't play baseball, we're here trying to kill that noise. And to let everyone know that there are very skilled baseball players that are minorities, that are playing the game. They're just waiting for their opportunity."