With Help from M.L.B., Baseball Returns at Xavier University of Louisiana

Dillon Cousin is from Slidell, La., a suburb of New Orleans, and he grew up playing baseball. Although Cousin, 19, said everybody in his family — “that’s not even an exaggeration” — is a graduate of Xavier University of Louisiana, a historically Black university in New Orleans, he committed to a university in Alabama instead. He could play baseball there.

But when XULA, as it is also known, announced in 2019 that it was resurrecting a baseball program that had been dormant since 1960, Cousin said he was “really shocked.” And when the newly hired XULA head coach, Adrian Holloway, invited Cousin to an athletic event on campus, gave him a tour, explained his vision and made him a generous scholarship offer, Cousin was sold.

“It’s a good school for putting people in medical school that look like me, and that’s what I want to do, actually,” Cousin, a freshman pitcher and first baseman, said in a phone interview. “I want to become a sports medicine doctor, so Xavier was really a perfect fit.”

While the baseball industry in the United States continues wrestling with persistent problems like inaccessibility and homogeny, and several H.B.C.U.s have cut baseball programs over the years, XULA achieved a notable milestone on Tuesday afternoon: It played its first intercollegiate baseball game in six decades.

And with an assist from Major League Baseball, it was a home game. Not only does the XULA Gold Rush baseball team use M.L.B.’s Urban Youth Academy at Wesley Barrow Stadium for practices and games, but so does the softball team, a new sport for the school. No other university in the country can call an M.L.B. facility its home stadium — an arrangement officials hoped would continue their efforts to improve participation and diversity in baseball and softball.

“Kids can now see the whole pipeline,” said Eddie Davis, the director of the youth academy in New Orleans, one of 11 such facilities across the country. “The younger kids can see former academy kids playing high school on the same field and now playing college on the same field. It’s tangible. Before, it was kind of grayish; you really can’t touch it. But now, you can.”

Playing college games at Wesley Barrow Stadium will complete a circle for 10 of the 43 players on XULA’s baseball roster. The 10, including Cousin and Blair Frederick, 23, a graduate student who is a pitcher and outfielder, are alumni of the academy.

“When I really started to get into baseball seriously, I was at the academy and putting in work,” said Frederick, a New Orleanian who graduated from the University of New Orleans after spending his first years of college playing or recovering from arm injuries at baseball powerhouses like Louisiana State and San Jacinto College. “And now toward the end of my career, I’m back at the academy.”

The academy, open to children ages 6 to 19, provides free on-field instruction. But its work extends off the diamond, too, to a junior broadcasting program and a sports law program hosted with Tulane. Two XULA baseball players — Donovan Gibson and Andreas Palmer — are graduates of the latter.

“You got to raise the sea to raise all the ships,” Davis said, adding that many will not reach the major leagues but some “may be the next Kim Ng or they may be the next G.M. or the next V.P. of sales, and then their kids are familiar with the game but then that kid might be the next Derek Jeter.”

Like Cousin, Frederick was surprised to learn XULA had resurrected baseball. His mother used to work at the university, so he spent many hours there after class in elementary school, but he didn’t think he would play baseball there. Now at XULA, he welcomed the chance.

“We have about 40 guys in our roster, so that’s 40 guys that get a chance to prolong their dream for a few more years that probably wouldn’t have had that opportunity anywhere else,” Frederick said, adding later, “It’s very important that we have access to things like this.”

Jason Horn, XULA’s assistant vice president for student affairs and director of athletics and recreation, said university leaders asked him a few years ago to find ways to attract new students through sports. XULA, which discontinued all sports in 1960 but restarted men’s basketball seven years later, is a private Roman Catholic university with an enrollment of about 3,300 and competes in the N.A.I.A. He said people sometimes stereotyped Black athletes, thinking they played only basketball and football.

But while at recruiting events for H.B.C.U.s, Horn said several students asked him if XULA had baseball, softball, cheerleading or track and field. It helped solidify XULA’s desire to expand into those sports. (Women’s indoor track and field and varsity coed competitive cheer were added last year.) In his seven years at XULA, Horn said, the number of people connected to athletics has more than tripled, to about 350.

“It’s about giving young men and women opportunity,” he said.

Holloway, 37, lost his previous job coaching baseball at Selma University, a smaller historically Black university in his hometown in Alabama, when it shut down its athletic department because of funding problems. He said many H.B.C.U.s don’t view baseball the way they do football and basketball.

“A lot of H.B.C.U.s are either cutting baseball or baseball is terribly underfunded at their university or usually baseball is the stepchild,” he said. “It was definitely a pleasant surprise to see Xavier adding baseball and actually putting money into it. We’re blessed to have a well-funded program to start.”

This year, Holloway said, he has a $350,000 scholarship budget, which helped him attract student-athletes from 12 states. Nearly half of the players are from Louisiana. Many of them are transfers from N.C.A.A. Division I schools or junior colleges. He said he purposefully built a diverse roster: The majority is Black American, but there are also Latino and white players — the latter two groups increasingly larger at other H.B.C.U.s.

Although only 4 percent of N.C.A.A. baseball players and about 8 percent of M.L.B. players are Black, Holloway said baseball is popular in that community. But too often, he said, working and middle-class families are priced out of the sport. Travel teams, for example, can cost thousands of dollars a year.

“I’ve seen us still playing baseball and still playing at a high level, but depending on where you’re from and what kind of background you come from, you may not afford to get the exposure to be at the next level,” he said.

Cousin said baseball was the main sport at his suburban high school, but he was often the only person of color on his teams. Davis, a New Orleans native who played for five years in the Los Angeles Dodgers’ farm system after college, said baseball lost an entire generation of Black Americans in the 1990s, falling behind football and basketball.

Hoping to tap into his experience, M.L.B. hired Davis, who worked in the tech industry and mentored youth players after his playing days, to run the academy ahead of its opening in 2012.

After Hurricane Katrina flooded Pontchartrain Park and destroyed Wesley Barrow Stadium in 2005, M.L.B., the city of New Orleans and the Federal Emergency Management Agency oversaw a $6.5 million rebuilding project. A plaque at the academy commemorates the site’s importance to the local Black American baseball scene: It opened in 1957, hosted a Negro league team three years later and reunion games for three decades, and was named after a former Negro league manager from Louisiana.

For years, Davis said he often nudged officials at XULA to add baseball and softball, arguing that there was indeed budding talent in the area. Back then, he said, there were only a handful of New Orleans colleges offering baseball and none offering softball. When current university officials began seriously considering both sports, Davis pushed for the academy to serve as their home even though he said it was busting at the seams with a packed schedule.

Practices were mostly squeezed into the early mornings or the middle of the day. Davis said XULA is not charged for practices, but pays an amount per game to help with basic operating expenses. “We made that work for them financially so they can have a lot of success,” he said.

The facility, a 15-minute drive from XULA’s campus, has conference rooms, turf baseball and softball fields, an auxiliary field and indoor and outdoor batting cages. To combat the spread of the coronavirus, Holloway said, players are screened daily, tested twice a week in season and required to wear masks.

While the XULA softball season began earlier this month, the baseball team finally got its chance on Tuesday. (Its original season opener, versus Rust College over the weekend, was postponed by snow and ice.) Cousin called it an honor to be a part of the group that brought baseball back to XULA.

“I’ve got a ton of people calling to ask for the schedule, trying to get out to games,” Frederick said. “There’s a lot of buzz around town right now.”

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