ACES program tilts playing field toward inclusion
White Sox program works to bring baseball to Chicago's inner city youth
CHICAGO -- There's something about baseball that bonds fathers to sons. The game passes through generations that way.
Except sometimes, as Kenny Fullman points out, players don't have fathers. That can be true anywhere, but Fullman sees it in the African-American community in inner cities, and it is why he divides his time between his full-time job as an officer for the Chicago Police Department and his calling as a coach/dugout doorman to escort kids into the world of baseball.
Fullman, whose own father was shot and killed when he was 12, is in his third decade as the baseball coach at Harlan High School in the West Chesterfield neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. Nothing gets his motor racing quite like the work he does for the White Sox in their ACES program.
He was helping coach the West team in the team's annual inner-city showcase -- the Double Duty Classic, named for the late Negro League legend Ted "Double Duty'' Radcliffe -- on Wednesday at U.S. Cellular Field. Then he was headed home to watch Vanderbilt play for a national championship against Virginia in the College World Series.
Ro Coleman, a 5-5, 140-pound freshman outfielder for the Commodores, played in the Double Duty Classic on his way to the College World Series. Like Louisville outfielder Corey Ray, who was also in Omaha, Coleman is a product of the White Sox's Amateur City Elite program.
"You can build a better world through a beautiful game,'' Fullman said. "Watching Ro in a Vanderbilt uniform, it almost brings tears to your eyes.''
Coleman has a father. In fact, both his father and his uncle played some professional baseball. But there's a difference between having skills and having opportunities, and if not for ACES, he might not have made the connections that led him to Vanderbilt.
Major League Baseball has worked for decades to generate baseball interest and develop players through the RBI (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City) program and more recently the building of Urban Youth Academies. But needs are different in different communities, and White Sox scout Nathan Durst identified one that led to to the creation of ACES and, he hopes, will ultimately bring "generational change'' to families in areas of Chicago that battle problems with gangs and violence.
Through ACES, the White Sox have found a way to connect to the community around them.
"It is critical when you consider being in a major city, the challenges you have in this city on the South Side -- the violence, the homicides and everything else,'' former White Sox outfielder Chris Singleton said. "For the White Sox to really be an integral part of the community, helping the community, helping what's right down the heart of the plate with baseball, education and kids all intertwining, is really neat.
"Jerry Reinsdorf should be a Hall of Fame owner in my opinion, from just what I've gotten to see in my years. His commitment to diversity in the game, and even outside of MLB within the community and kids, is wonderful.''
Colleges rarely scout Chicago's Public League schools, and at times in recent decades have seemed almost scared away from the inner cities. Players from economically challenged neighborhoods didn't have the resources to play travel ball or participate in national showcases, so they were being left behind.
Durst, an area scout assigned to Chicago, was stunned to see how low one prospect from Harlan High was ranked on a list of Illinois prospects in 2006.
"Elliott Armstrong, a Harlan High School player, was ranked like 100th or something,'' Durst said. "He was a plus runner, average arm, could swing the bat. He was better than that. At that moment in time it sort of clicked. These guys weren't getting enough exposure. They weren't able to fully have their tools seen. Major League scouts were [attending Public League games], but college coaches weren't.''
Durst discussed the situation with then-White Sox general manager Ken Williams, senior vice president Scott Reifert and senior director of community relations Christine O'Reilly. With Reinsdorf's backing, they funded a team for high-school age players that first year.
Durst quickly realized that they needed more than three or four years to get players polished to a level that would attract the attention of colleges. He went back to Reifert and O'Reilly and sought to offer opportunities for players as young as 12 years old.
"After the first year I thought this isn't nearly enough time to help a player achieve that goal,'' Durst said. "We just didn't have the development arc to get it done.''
It's not just baseball skills that players work at throughout the 11 months of the year that ACES operates. Academics are stressed, with players ultimately having access to ACT/SAT prep courses. Players are coached on handshakes and eye contact, as well as getting secondary leads and throwing first-pitch strikes.
The thought is to give them the best chance to succeed when they travel to national events and showcases, where college coaches look for players.
"What happens is the kids throughout their tenure build relationships with the college coaches to knock that edge off,'' Fullman said. "A lot of coaches don't want to recruit them. You hear about the inner city and the kids and a lot of times [coaches] can be standoffish because they've heard so many things. But doing camps, showcases from [age] 12, 13, the college coaches get to know them, build relationships. That's big.''
Singleton, who now works as a television analyst, joined former Negro Leaguer Ernest Westfield and historian Larry Lester in a panel discussion before Wednesday's game. He was a three-sport athlete growing up and said he pursued a football scholarship over one in baseball while in high school.
"When you have an organization getting behind the effort to help kids get exposure, develop their skills, that only helps,'' Singleton said. "If there was something like that available to me when I was in high school, perhaps I would never have played football. I could have gotten into a program that gave me confidence that I'd not just get drafted, but go to a four-year school.''
From that beginning, the program has grown into having 100-110 players on ACE teams annually. More than 70 players who have spent time in the program have received baseball scholarships, including 11 from the group of 12- and 13-year-olds that Durst and Fullman tried out for their first 13-and-under team.
In addition to Coleman and Ray, that group also included outfielder Darius Day, who was drafted in the 23rd round by the Rangers this year but apparently headed for the University of Arizona. Blake Hickman, another player from the ACES program, pitches for the University of Iowa. Jerry Houston plays infield at the University of Oregon.
The program is working exactly as Durst imagined it.
"To me, if you look at our track record, Public League players going on to pro ball, the success isn't nearly as great as the players who went to college, whether it be Marvin Freeman, Ernie Young, Kirby Puckett, Lou Collier,'' Durst said. "All those guys went to either a junior college or a four-year school first and went on to have success in their professional careers. Most of our high school kids have not.
"My feeling was in order to have more African-American players have more sustainable careers, I felt we needed to get more to college -- to allow their ability to take them to whatever college that ability warranted.''
Fullman believes the time is coming when Chicago begins producing more Major League players, thanks largely to the work he and others are doing in the ACES program.
"Our staff is unbelievable, working, making adjustment to get the kids to that level,'' Fullman said. "With the talent level, with the program getting as much good exposure as it is -- two kids playing in the College World Series -- we'll get more of those super talented kids to that level of the big leagues, I really believe it. One day we'll have players in the big leagues.''
It's hard to imagine that will be any more rewarding than what the program has been doing -- sending kids off to colleges year after year.
Phil Rogers is a columnist for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.