HOUSTON -- Recruiting is never easy, not even when you play in a baseball breeding ground.
Michael Robertson, the head coach at Texas Southern, doesn't just have to get players interested in his program. He also has to tell them why his team would be a better fit than a local baseball monolith like Rice or the University of Texas, and he'll take any perceived advantage he can get.
Robertson, the coach at Texas Southern since 2008, can count on at least one luxury in his backyard. Texas Southern is intimately involved with the Urban Youth Academy in Houston, a fact that has given his baseball program some added cache on the recruiting front and on the field.
Most of Robertson's potential recruits come right from the Houston area, and he estimated that 80 percent of his team has come from the surrounding area. In other words, Houston is ground zero for Robertson's team, and his prospects will only improve as the local academy finds its footing.
"That's what we really try to do: Stay close at home and recruit kids, especially because of all the adversity you face with the scholarship situation in Division I," he said. "We really can't afford to go out and get an out-of-state kid unless there's academic [scholarship] we can bring him in on. We really try not to recruit outside of a 75-mile radius from Houston. We've been fortunate at doing that."
Robertson, speaking moments after his team had taken a 1-0 win over Southern University in the first game of the Urban Invitational at Minute Maid Park, said that his players have relished working with local youth at the academy. Some have been able to parlay their community service into internship credits, and the team has been able to use the academy's indoor batting cages in inclement weather.
But really, he said, the biggest impact he's seen is from the Urban Invitational itself. Robertson said it's been an incredible recruiting tool to tell players that they'll be able to play in three games at a big league facility, and that it's been even better to tell them they'll play on national TV.
That, in and of itself, is sometimes enough to sway players from attending larger universities.
"Remember, now: We're getting second- and third-tier players," Robertson said of the typical Texas Southern recruit. "We always talk to them about coming in here with a chip on their shoulder. Rice, the University of Houston and Texas passed up on them. We've got those guys on our schedule and we're hoping they understand the big picture in that they can be a big fish in a small pond."
That mentality is music to the ears of Major League Baseball, which has quietly cultivated a powerful synergy. The Urban Invitational was invented to bring exposure to baseball teams at historically black colleges and universities, and the Urban Youth Academies have begun to supply the players.
Darrell Miller, the league's vice president of youth and facility development, said the progress is evident to everyone involved. Baseball is returning to the inner city, he said, and it's helping to spread the love of the game and the importance of a college education.
"The more mature academies are bearing a lot more fruit on a day-to-day basis," said Miller. "And I think the HBCUs [historically black colleges and universities] are doing really well recruiting-wise because of their affiliation with this tournament. It's putting them on the map and giving them the ability to recruit better kids, which was our goal.
"In talking to the coaches individually, they use this opportunity to play at Minute Maid Park and to also play on the MLB Network. They're taking their programs to the next level."
Mervyl Melendez, the head coach at Alabama State, has been another man with his eyes on the bigger prize. Two of Alabama State's players come from the Urban Youth Academy in Puerto Rico, where they had the opportunity to play with Carlos Correa, the top pick in last year's First-Year Player Draft.
Melendez said Correa's success has led to more competition for players from Puerto Rico's academy, but he said it's been a net positive because it's helped inspire the kids to work harder. Perhaps more important, he said, it's given an opportunity to players that may not have had one otherwise.
"It does help," he said of the academy. "It helps to have players that are trained to play baseball. They do that every single day. In Puerto Rico, unlike here, there is no high school baseball. Having the academy there helps a great deal in training the players and getting them ready for college."
Melendez, a native of Puerto Rico, said that he loves bringing his team to the Urban Invitational and that he sees only positives from playing on a national stage. Melendez would love to have an Urban Youth Academy in Alabama, but he knows he has nearby options in Houston and New Orleans.
"If you recruit nationally, there's nothing that's too far. Geographically, we don't stop anywhere," he said. "If you find a player that can help your program, you've got to go and see those players. Any academy that is opened up and has good players, that's one that needs to be scouted."
Besides the academy in Puerto Rico -- which doubles as a high school -- there are academies running in Houston, New Orleans and Compton, Calif. There are planned facilities being built in Washington, D.C., Philadelphia and south Florida, and another one has been announced for Cincinnati.
The mission is only beginning, and Southern University coach Roger Cador said that it's still too early to see concrete results from the facility in New Orleans. But it's only a matter of time, he said, until the youth of New Orleans embrace the academy the way they have in both Houston and Compton.
"I think it will [improve] in the future because New Orleans will have some really good players that will develop and come through that program," said Cador of the future dividends. "I feel pretty good about it. And it will help Southern University, but it's going to help [New Orleans.] I look at what it's done in California and I look at what it's done here in Houston. It's a win-win situation."
Indeed it is, both for the players and the universities they may one day attend. Waskyla Cullivan, the coach at Prairie View A&M, knows that the potential is there to change the way he recruits. Right now, Prairie View mostly pursues junior college kids, and Cullivan has 18 of them on his roster.
That's not the only trend: All but seven of Cullivan's players come from Texas, a reflection of the state's depth of talent. That can only be helped by the maturity of the local Urban Youth Academy, but if you ask Cullivan, that possibility is more important to the game than it is to his program.
"I think it's going to get African-American kids more opportunities in Little League to get more excited about this game," said Cullivan. "Football and basketball are both more up-tempo, and baseball is one of the slower games that might be boring to a lot of kids. But we want to create excitement for the game. ... We've got international kids coming in and getting great opportunities in the Major Leagues. We've got to make sure we get American kids -- African-American and Caucasian -- off the decline. The international kids aren't looking at money. They just want opportunity. And as Americans in the game of baseball, we've got to step up and do better or in 20-30 years, we might be out of the game."
Spencer Fordin is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.