White Sox youth program coming up ACEs

White Sox youth program coming up ACEs

White Sox youth program coming up ACEs
CHICAGO -- About five years ago, Nathan Durst, the White Sox national crosschecking scout, made a realization that has since changed the lives of a number of Chicago-area youths.

While thumbing through a baseball publication ranking the top 100 local seniors, Durst noticed a lack of public high school players in the group, even though he had watched players he felt belonged on that list.

"One player in particular that I knew had quite a bit of ability and some of the tools and stuff like that," Durst said. "So I felt that the public league was maybe not being covered as closely as it should, and that there were kids with ability there that weren't getting the opportunities they deserved."

With that in mind, Durst and Justin Stone, the head instructor at the White Sox Training Academy, came together and proposed the idea of the White Sox Amateur City Elite (ACE) program to the organization and its charities, which agreed to lend their support.

ACE, which started with just one U-18 team in 2007, has grown to a five-team program with age-specific teams ranging from U-13 to U-18.

Six of the program's players have been taken in the First-Year Player Draft -- including Jonathon Clark in the 17th round by the Mets and Dontrell Rush in the 48th round by the White Sox this year -- and some participants have verbally committed to playing baseball at Division I schools.

Last year, Kendall Radcliffe became the first ACE player to sign a professional contract after being taken in the 25th round by the Texas Rangers.

Blake Hickman and Devin Pickett, who were part of the inaugural team, plan to play at the University of Iowa.

"For me to say that we expected this kind of success this fast, I don't think anybody did," said Dan Puente, Chicago's coordinator of youth baseball initiatives. "It just goes to show that the players have the ability. What we're doing is keeping them interested in baseball, and we're showing them a road map [detailing that] if they work hard and they do well in school, these things are possible."

Unfortunately, many kids involved with ACE are there because they aren't in an environment conducive to advancing their baseball careers, whether at home or at school. With that in mind, Kenny Fullman, the team's head coach and a full-time Chicago police officer, knows that his responsibility extends far beyond coaching his players on the field.

"A lot of our kids come from one-parent households or situations where people don't really understand how important an education is," Fullman said. "So you almost become a father figure to these kids -- the whole coaching staff does. We just try to motivate them to be not just good baseball players -- that's something they already are -- but our focus is that they become good people and have worthwhile lives when they grow up."

For the most part, the ACE teams compete in local tournaments against other travel-team programs from the Chicago area, as well as from Wisconsin, Indiana and Iowa. Some of the players will showcase their talents at this year's Double Duty Classic, which takes place at U.S. Cellular Field on Wednesday.

The Double Duty Classic celebrates the history and tradition of Negro League baseball in Chicago by promoting the next generation of inner-city players, whose interest in the sport is important to maintain, says Durst. Along with the ACE players, the game features some of the best inner-city high schoolers from across the country.

"Major League Baseball has seen a decline in African-American players over the years," Durst sad. "As little kids, everyone plays Little League. Then you get to 13, 14 years old and focus your skills on other sports. We want them to not give up basketball, football or anything else, but still give baseball a chance. Just stick with it and see what happens."

"It's a wonderful feeling. It just gives you fulfillment," Fullman said. "Sometimes you neglect things in your own life that you shouldn't because you really believe in these kids. So when they actually do it, it makes you feel good to know these guys have stayed on the right path both academically and athletically, and that it's paying off for them."

Paul Casella is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.