Lerners hope to break ground on new urban baseball academy in May

It was a dream that always seemed far off into the future - an obscure plan to host an urban youth baseball development academy in the nation's capital.

That day is arriving, or will be arriving soon, and the Washington Nationals Dream Foundation is busy moving forward at a frenzied pace after overcoming complex bureaucratic obstacles. It's something the Lerner family has poured its hearts into since assuming ownership of the team in 2006.

And this past winter, the final piece fell into place. The District of Columbia approved a 10-acre lease at Fort Dupont Park for the construction of a state-of-the-art baseball and academic development facility culminating a complex land transfer arrangement several years in the making.

Today, it's full steam ahead for Marla Lerner Tanenbaum and her crew, who hope to break ground on the new facility in May. When finished, the property will host a regulation baseball field, a Little League field and a softball field where players, coaches and Major League Baseball instructors will teach baseball skills clinics to the children. As part of Major League Baseball Urban Youth Academy Initiative, MLB faculty will travel between different cities to teach at the various academies.

"I've had players and coaches express interest or downright enthusiasm to me to be a part of this," Tanenbaum said. "I'm hoping the players who are committed to us over a longer period of time, like Ryan Zimmerman and Jayson Werth, will take a deeper interest in it."

Tanenbam consults with Harlem RBI to help structure the youth development portion of the program, which teaches not only baseball skills but literacy, academic development, nutrition and health. Tanenbaum is also busy recruiting a new executive director to implement the Lerners' vision for the academy.

"We'll open all three fields and the academy building by our opening day in 2012," Tanenbaum continued. "If we can do something earlier than that, we will. I'm hoping to break ground by May."

When complete, the academy will open to third- and fourth-graders in the schools near Fort Dupont Park. Gradually, the program will expand until it serves children through seniors in high school.

Nationals Park architects at Devrouax-Purnell began working on the project pro bono, but continue to advise the Lerners on the final design, which changed after the lease finally fell into place. The Brickman Group also pledged its interest in the project, loaning the pre-eminent field designer in the country, Murray Cook, to the project. Cook advises Major League Baseball on its fields and he's helped the Lerners with design placement, green issues, sighting of the fields and sighting of the academy building on the Fort Dupont property.

"They've all really put their heart and soul into this. I'm excited about that," she said.

And so, the dream is almost a reality. Soon, district youth will have access to a tremendous new baseball facility, world-class baseball instructors and a program designed to provide academic enrichment and development.

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