At Dream Series, MLB works to develop young black players

TEMPE, Ariz. — Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, complete with modern beats, played over a loudspeaker as a group of young men, virtually all of them black baseball players born in the United States, practiced batting. at the annual Dream Series this past weekend.

Tony Reagins, the Major League Baseball executive behind the event, turned to a visitor and said: “When was the last time you heard a speech from Dr King during BP? “

Maybe never, was the answer. The audio mix came from the phone of former Chicago Mets and White Sox manager Jerry Manuel. Manuel is also one of the coaches for the Dream Series, an event named, in part, to honor King’s legacy and designed to increase the number of black players in Major League Baseball.

“Just seeing all of this gives me goosebumps,” Reagins said.

Only three months have passed since the conclusion of a World Series that embarrassed and humiliated MLB. For the first time in 72 years, it was played without a single black player of American origin.

Baseball, the sport that once helped redefine racial boundaries in American society when Jackie Robinson joined the National League in 1947 — and fielded multicultural rosters for decades — had receded in recent years. But the 2022 World Series, between the Philadelphia Phillies and Houston Astros, has been a jarring signpost.

The problems are not just on the ground. MLB’s 30 teams, while showing progress, still suffer from a glaring lack of diversity in front offices and coaching staffs, according to independent watchdogs. But the participation of black American players in baseball, including in the once-thriving black leagues, had long been a hallmark of the sport, and it was fading.

The effort to address this problem began long before the 2022 World Series and was reinvigorated with the hiring of Reagins in 2015. The rewards of the league’s various programs, Reagins insists, will be seen in years to come.

“I was disappointed, I was discouraged,” Reagins said when he learned that no black players would be competing in the 2022 World Series. big step in our game. I knew this was going to be the narrative, but I also knew there was so much work going on to create a path for the years to come.

This work is his passion. Reagins, who served as general manager of the Los Angeles Angels from 2007 to 2011, joined MLB with a mandate to diversify the game from scratch. He helped launch and revitalize several development programs, including the Dream Series, which takes place over MLK Day weekend each year; the revolutionary series; and the Hank Aaron Invitational, which culminates in a showcase event at Truist Park in suburban Atlanta.

All of the programs, and more to come, were designed to bring primarily underserved black girls and boys into baseball, softball and women’s baseball, and to eventually put the most talented players, like JP Massey, ahead of college coaches and professional scouts. .

“I’m a kid from downtown Chicago, so for them to take me all the way to Atlanta, where there are different scouts, it’s a chance to show your talent in front of different pairs of eyes,” said said Massey, a 22-year-old pitcher who said he might not have had the chance to play at the University of Minnesota or get drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates without the coaching and mentoring he he received in the different programs.

In an increasingly high-paying era, where expensive travel teams and private coaches funnel more privileged players to elite showcase events, many underprivileged young players struggle to get noticed by scouts and scouts. . Most programs under the MLB umbrella, which are also supported by the Players Union and USA Baseball, are free, include travel and offer elite training.

This past weekend, former players and managers, including Manuel, LaTroy Hawkins, Marvin Freeman and Mike Scioscia, were scattered around the Angels’ training facility, working closely with many of the nation’s top young black players. MLB says about 600 alumni of the series have gone on to play in college, an achievement Reagins hails as equally important to the core mission.

A longtime scout, Reagins strenuously states that baseball is still popular among young black athletes.

“You hear, ‘Oh, black kids don’t play baseball,'” he said. “I see them all the time. All the time. When I hear that, I can relate to it. But that person is probably regurgitating something they just heard.

Yet there is no debate about the declining number of African-American players in MLB Last year, the percentage of American-born black players on opening day rosters was 7 .2, according to the annual Race and Gender Report, conducted by the University of Central Florida. This is the lowest percentage since 1991, when the data was first collected. That year, African-American players made up 18% of MLB’s roster.

But while the number of black players in MLB continues to decline, the number of draft picks has increased dramatically in recent years, in part due to league programs. According to the same study, in the first rounds of the last 10 drafts, 65 American-born black players were drafted out of 349 picks (18.6%). A large percentage of these players were alumni of MLB-run development programs.

MLB sees the 2022 Draft as a sobering counterpoint to the World Series. Four of the top five players selected and six of the top 18 are American-born players who have participated in one or more of MLB’s development programs. Nine of the 30 players selected in the first round are American-born black players.

Richard Lapchick, director of UCF’s Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport, which produces the newsletter, called the World Series a “breathtaking” moment. He thinks MLB is making a sincere effort to turn the tide.

“The numbers for the project show a sign of hope,” he said, “but we won’t know for a few years if it will bring the change they hope for.”

Someday soon, young kids may be watching players like Zion Rose and Sir Jamison Jones, two of the many receivers working with Scioscia, the former Dodgers All-Star catcher and longtime Angels manager, on weekends. last.

“To work closely with a coach like that is amazing,” said Jones, a high school student from Blue Island, Illinois, near Chicago. His dream is to become an MLB All-Star, “and start my own foundation to help inner-city kids get involved in baseball.”

There are many theories as to why baseball has become less popular among black athletes, many having to do with the appeal of more popular sports like football, basketball and soccer.

“Baseball was once a mainstay in our community,” said Manuel, the former manager, who is 69. “Our generation, we haven’t done our job to keep kids involved in baseball.”

But nothing has yet deterred Cam Johnson, an excellent left-handed pitcher from Maryland, from pursuing a career in baseball.

Johnson is 6ft 5in, weighs 240lbs and said many people tried to persuade him to switch to football or basketball. Darwin Pennye, a scout for the Kansas City Royals who has worked as a coach and director of youth development, said it’s hard for young players to resist the lure of these sports.

“We try to keep the Patrick Mahomes of the world in our game,” Pennye said.

Patrick Mahomes, whose father, Pat, was a major league pitcher, chose football, as did other dual-sport stars like Kyler Murray, Russell Wilson and Jameis Winston.

Johnson was mentored and encouraged by Hawkins, a 21-year-old major league pitcher who watched Johnson pitch Saturday in front of a dozen MLB scouts, all invited by Reagins to attend the Dream Series. Reagins said more scouts are showing up at events following last year’s draft, but he’d like to see even more.

The programs are for players of all skill levels, starting with elementary schools, and each year the top 44 players are invited to play in a special game at Truist Park, home of the Atlanta Braves, where they use the same flags than the big leaguers. and stay in the same hotel as the visiting teams.

“It was the highlight of my baseball life,” said Jones, the Illinois catcher.

Not everyone gets there. But some, like Fateen McDaniel, go even further, in part because of the mentorship they’ve received. McDaniel was such a troublemaker at the Hank Aaron Invitational several years ago that Reagins almost sent him home. But Manuel, who recommended McDaniel for the program, told Reagins that if they did, they would never hear from McDaniel again. Today, McDaniel serves as an aviation boatswain, launching planes from the deck of the USS Harry S. Truman.

Speaking by phone from the ship, McDaniel described how Manuel discovered him and others at the Little League grounds in Sacramento, Calif.

“All of these kids, majority black, a lot of them from broken homes, single parent homes, and they’ve put us in a stable setting,” McDaniel said. “I probably did bad things to make him look bad. If I could take it all back, I would.

“Baseball saved me a lot of trouble that I could have gotten into. I’m getting married soon and we’re talking about having kids. I would definitely put my son in programs like this.

The Dream Series was born after Reagins heard Dave Stewart, a longtime pitcher for the Oakland Athletics and several other clubs, lament the lack of black pitchers and receivers in today’s game. The program, with around 80 players, emphasizes these positions.

Alumni like Hunter Greene, who showed glimpses of potential with the Cincinnati Reds last season, and Termarr Johnson, the No. 4 pick in last year’s draft by the Pittsburgh Pirates, are beacons for the young players. Greene invited them all to his home in Phoenix on Saturday night and gave them tips and letters of encouragement.

The general message from Greene and everyone else involved in the programs: there is still a place for you in baseball.

“A lot of these guys are the only black players on their home teams,” Manuel said. “But when they come here, look around and see all these other players who look like them, they see they’re not the only ones.”

nytimes sport

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