WASHINGTON -- Five years after the idea was born, the Washington Nationals and the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy took a major step Tuesday, when they broke ground on a nine-acre baseball facility in Fort Dupont Park.
The facility, which will include three fields and an 18,000-square-foot athletic and educational building, is located east of the Anacostia River in Ward 7.
"This is why baseball is back in D.C., and this is why the Washington Nationals and Washington Nationals Foundation are here: to give back to the community and to improve the lives of children and families across the Washington region," said Marla Lerner Tanenbaum, chair of the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation.
For decades, many sought to bring baseball back to Washington D.C.
The first step came at the professional level in 2005, when the Nationals moved from Montreal. Upon the team's arrival, officials from federal, local and private sectors combined to make the Nationals Youth Baseball Academy a reality.
"Coming from a scouting and player development background, I see the deterioration of inner city youth baseball programs," said general manager Mike Rizzo. "They're always getting cut when we talk about cutting budgets in these tough times, but we need facilities and programs like this."
The Nationals' coaching staff was on hand, along with Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa, Jerry Hairston Jr., Adam LaRoche, Drew Storen and countless dignitaries, including former Nationals manager Frank Robinson.
Robinson, now senior advisor to the Commisioner, was on hand to represent Major League Baseball, which donated $1 million to the construction costs this week.
After the National Park Service donated the land, the District of Columbia and the Washington Convention and Sports Authority granted $10.2 million for the construction funds. The Nationals and their Dream Foundation donated $3.5 million to its construction and operation, which they will be in charge of year round.
The Academy is located across the street from Sousa Middle School and Kimball Elementary, both of which had students on hand for the ceremony. The children, dressed in their baseball uniforms, played catch with Nationals players and coaches while dignitaries placed the first shovels into the dirt.
"We have so many kids that live in this area," said mayor Vincent C. Gray. "Thirty-nine percent of our kids in the District of Columbia live east of the [Anacostia] River, and what a great opportunity we have to expose these kids to a sport that many of them know nothing about. This is a chance to be able to influence their lives with the teamwork, strategy and focus involved."
The Academy has three fields -- one youth-sized, one for softball and one regulation baseball field -- but officials are equally excited about the indoor facility.
The state-of-the-art building will include classrooms and community rooms for after-school programs, a teaching kitchen and indoor training facilities.
The Academy is modeled after the Harlem RBI program, which Kwame Brown, who is chairman of the Council of the District of Columbia, studied firsthand. Since 2005, 97 percent of the children who participated in Harlem's RBI program graduated high school. Since 2010, 95 percent went on to college.
"This model represents the needs of low-income youth and their families," Brown said. "This is about playing baseball, but this is also about making sure we improve the educational outcomes for our young folks and their families."
Steven Miller is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.