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Lyle Spencer

King's enduring messages delivered at Academy

King's enduring messages delivered at Academy

COMPTON, Calif. -- This is where it all began for former Major League All-Stars Don Buford and Ken Landreaux, and they have returned to their inner-city roots in sprawling Los Angeles to do their most important work. The players are teachers now.

On his day, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would applaud their efforts in concert with a staff of baseball lifers who gathered to enrich and enlighten young people at the Compton Urban Youth Academy alongside the 91 Freeway, at 901 East Artesia Blvd.

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"I think the influence Dr. King had on young people like myself was as a pillar of pursuing and achieving your dreams and goals -- with the same equal opportunity as anyone in society," said Buford, a 1970 World Series champion with the Orioles who looks much younger than his 76 years.

Landreaux, 59, is trying to convey Dr. King's vision in lifting the spirits and hopes of young people at the Academy.

"I'm trying to teach these kids how to handle adversity and deal with any situation in life," said Landreaux, a World Series champion in 1981 with his hometown Dodgers. "Through baseball and the importance of learning the fundamentals, they can learn the discipline to become educated, to be good, productive citizens. That's what we're striving for here."

The Academy has been busy staging its fourth annual Martin Luther King Jr. High School Tournament, with the championship game set, appropriately, for Monday's national holiday to honor Dr. King.

A non-profit organization established in 2006 by Major League Baseball, the Compton UYA has led the way in developing young talent and teaching youth from the area life skills that will take them well beyond the baseball and softball fields.

Lorenzo Gray, James Bishop and Dave Frost, a 16-game winner with the 1979 Angels, are among the former pros providing instruction and insights for their charges.

Just as meaningful to Buford, the director, and hitting coordinator Landreaux as the protégés drafted by Major League clubs are the young people who have gone through the program and earned college scholarships.

"Fifteen kids this year signed letters of intent to Division I schools," said Doug Takaragawa, the coordinator of programs. "That gives us great satisfaction."

Commissioner Bud Selig was the initial driving force behind the Urban Youth Academy and Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) initiatives in 2006, with Darrell Miller and Hall of Famer Frank Robinson taking on leadership roles.

The annual First-Year Player Draft has become a source of pride to the Compton Academy, most recently with graduates Dominic Smith (No. 11 overall, to the Mets) and J.P. Crawford (No. 16, Phillies) taken in the first round in 2013.

"If it wasn't for [the Compton Academy], I wouldn't be where I am now," Crawford, a gifted shortstop, said on Draft day. "When I first started going there at the age of 12, they helped me out with all the little things about baseball, all the fundamentals. Then I started getting exposed [to scouts] out there, so they helped me out with that, too."

"I've known him since I was 11," Smith said of Crawford. "We've been brothers together, played baseball together and are just happy to be here together."

Minnesota's Aaron Hicks, Toronto's Anthony Gose and Houston's Jonathan Singleton are among the Academy products forging professional careers, along with Ricky Oropesa (Giants), Angelo Gumbs (Yankees) and Kevin Grove (Marlins).

Singleton and Smith are the top two first-base prospects as ranked by MLB.com.

It was through Robinson -- his legendary teammate on the Orioles teams that reached consecutive World Series in 1969-71 -- that Buford became involved in the Compton Academy 14 months ago.

"Including the Little Leaguers and softball, we've got 1,200 to 1,500 kids overall in our program now," Buford said. "We're using sports as a way to show them how to improve their life skills. To participate in sports, you have to keep a grade point average. We want them to see the big picture, how there are a ton of colleges out there that can give them scholarships."

Buford speaks from personal experience. A terrific but undersized athlete at 5-foot-7 and 150 pounds, he had no offers out of L.A.'s Dorsey High School. Playing football and baseball as a freshman at Los Angeles City College, he earned money delivering the Los Angeles Times so he could attend the University of Southern California as a walk-on.

There, legendary baseball coach Rod Dedeaux talked football coach Don Clark into giving the diminutive Buford a shot "as a scrimmage dummy." Listed seventh on the depth chart at running back, Buford played his way into a prominent role as a two-way player for the Trojans in 1958 and '59. He made the Notre Dame and UCLA all-opponent teams in '58.

"I was the first African-American baseball player at USC in '57," Buford said. "I kept myself in shape year-round and never had any injuries. I used the science part of the game -- angles, lower center of gravity -- and I was instinctive. I applied that to baseball, too."

Signed by the White Sox, Buford made his big league debut in 1963 and was a regular in Chicago for four seasons before being shipped to Baltimore.

Joining a powerful club that featured future Hall of Famers Frank and Brooks Robinson and Jim Palmer, the versatile Buford was the leadoff catalyst. Ahead of his time with his plate discipline and power, he homered twice in the 1971 World Series, which was taken in seven games by Roberto Clemente and the Pirates.

"I might have been the Series MVP, but Roberto had his own ideas," Buford said, grinning.

Hitting behind the swift Buford in Baltimore was Paul Blair, another L.A. product, from Manual Arts High School.

"With our backgrounds, we formed a special bond as teammates," said Buford, whose good friend passed away last month, at 69, in Baltimore.

The Academy is honoring the great center fielder, an eight-time Gold Glove Award winner, with the Paul Blair Memorial All-Star Game at the Academy on Sunday.

Landreaux, who attended nearby Manuel Dominguez High School, has been a daily presence on the Compton grounds "pretty much since it started," he said.

Like Buford, Landreaux was "way too small" at 155 pounds to launch a professional career out of high school. He accepted a scholarship to Arizona State University, put on about 20 pounds of muscle and launched his Major League career in 1977 with the hometown Angels, who drafted him No. 6 overall in 1976.

Dealt to the Twins for Rod Carew after the '78 season, Landreaux hit a career-best .305 in 1979. After an All-Star season in 1980, he returned home, to the Dodgers, in a swap and was the center fielder for the 1981 champions. He wrapped up a solid 11-year career in '87.

"One thing I stress to these kids is that by going to college, you open up so many more avenues," Landreaux said. "Signing out of high school, leaving the nest, your family, that's tough. College gives you time to mature, to learn how to take care of yourself.

"We've made strides here [at the Academy], but we've got a lot of work to do. It's important that we do what we can to get these kids on the right track, moving toward a good life."

Dr. King's enduring messages are being delivered on a daily basis.

Lyle Spencer is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.

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