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MLB and former players pitch in to get young black talent in the game

Hank Aaron is leading effort to mentor, instruct and inspire next generation of stars

Major League Baseball is trying to fix its diversity gap with the Hank Aaron Invitational.

Launched in 2015, the Hank Aaron Invitational (HAI) was created and developed by MLB and the MLB Players Association Youth Development Foundation to focus on improving the caliber, effectiveness and availability of youth baseball and softball programs across the country and internationally.

This year’s class had nearly 260 players training at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, with former major league players and coaches while showcasing their talent in front of MLB and collegiate scouts for two weeks. Players were able to meet baseball pioneer Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon, MLB commissioner Rob Manfred, MLBPA executive director Tony Clark, Hall of Famers, college coaches and baseball executives.

Last weekend, the top 44 players traveled to Atlanta to meet Aaron and play in the Hank Aaron Invitational game.

Although the invitational is fairly new, it continues an MLB effort to increase the number of black players in pro baseball. More than 200 players who have played in the instructional portion of the event or its predecessor, the Elite Development Invitational (EDI), are playing baseball professionally in the minor leagues or in college.

Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred at the Hank Aaron Invitational camp.

MLB

“We feel that this program is part of preserving a really important tradition of diversity and inclusion in the game,” Manfred said. “We need a diverse product on the field, and we’re making an investment to make sure that happens.”

The invitational rebranded the EDI and added new elements, including the one-week camp designed to encourage teens from diverse backgrounds to remain in the game. They attend classes on subjects other than baseball, including initiatives focusing on business networking, history connected to Aaron’s legacy, education and social justice.

That push is needed because the percentage of black players on major league rosters has dropped from 19% in 1981 to 7% this season. The decline of black participation in baseball is well-documented.

Nearly 90% of the showcase’s players have graduated from high school and are playing college baseball or professionally. Twenty-one players were selected in the June MLB draft, including second-round picks Nasim Nunez (Miami Marlins) and Kyren Paris (Los Angeles Angels) and third-round pick Mike Harris (Atlanta Braves).

Nunez, a shortstop, is playing rookie ball for the Marlins’ Gulf Coast League team and hitting .223.

“It’s really rare. You don’t see much of that, especially with Georgia,” said Nunez. “And just the fact I was around brothers, people I can really relate to, as well as the coaches who had been at the level everybody wants to get to and how to prepare us as young black men to play this game physically and mentally on and off the field. So I took that to the extreme levels, paying attention to everything they said, listening to the details, and I just took that. I took that to heart, and it was a true blessing just to have fun to be out there. It’s honestly a feeling that you could get really once in a lifetime.”

Harris, who played in the invitational game, is playing rookie ball in the Braves’ system and believes the showcase prepared him for exactly what he’s facing at the start of his career.

“It will definitely prepare me on the physical aspect of baseball by getting up early in the morning, having the same kind of breakfast we had. We had the eggs, pancakes or waffles, not being used to that mama-cooked breakfast every day and kind of getting used to that,” said Harris.

“Everything we did is to prepare ourselves. Before practice, our games, is exactly what’s going on right now in rookie ball, so I give them big shout-outs for that one because that prepared me a lot mentally and physically. And also the little speeches they would give to us, how you have to watch everything you’re doing on social media, people are gonna watch, you’re a public figure, that’s been a big help because I’ve seen incidents where I think I’m good or I’m out. Now, whenever you’re out, somebody is always watching you and you never know who.”

The number of African American players in the major leagues has declined more than 10% in the past two decades, according to a study by the Society for American Baseball Research. So having some of the players who played during the 1980s and ’90s, when the most black players played, is beneficial to the young athletes whom the veterans came back to mentor and school.

Jerry Manuel, who managed the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets and played in the majors in the 1970s and ’80s, is one of those mentors. He believes baseball is headed in the right direction with the invitational.

“With the renovation of the Jackie Robinson facility, naming this the Hank Aaron Invitational, I think as we really get outside the box we can make this a school to where we get the players here that are underserved to prepare for SATs, ACTs or whatever they need to get into college and those types of things,” said Manuel. “We’ll let the baseball part take care of itself, and once that happens, I think we’ll create a passion. I think the people at the top believe in what we’re doing, and we have continued to make it a priority to do this with a willing spirit of excellence, and we’re close. We’re close to really getting this where we want it to be and close to what we want it to look like. We’re adding numbers to this every year. So you have to tip your hat to the commissioner’s people that come out and see it and say, ‘Wow, this is what they’re talking about.’ So we’re close.”

Marquis Grissom, who played for six major league teams from 1989 to 2005, appreciated sharing his time with the next generation of potential stars.

“Yeah, it’s, for me, it’s a blessing, man,” Grissom said. “It’s an unbelievable feeling to have that experience, to give these kids now to get that exposure, to teach the kids, to develop the kid. Students, they know me as an instructor. That’s the reward that I get from participating in EDI and the breakthrough series and also have my own organization in Atlanta, really just being an extension of Hank Aaron, what he stood for, his commitment to the community. And from my experience, my commitment to my family and friends and the community coming up when I was a player and then halfway in my career, I realized pretty much what I wanted to do there afterward.”

Andre Duplantier participated in previous EDI events and was one of four black players from the University of Texas baseball squad. He said he was often the only black player on his select teams growing up.

“Just the fact that there’s so many African American players trying to pursue that same goal, it just feels like there’s almost a change being made,” he said. “That’s why I say it’s bigger than me. And just being at the University of Texas, it’s a lot of different African American players coming from all different places. We’re all trying to be the best we can be.”

Trey Faltine, also a Longhorn, said the showcase prepared him to play in college.

“Being able to hear stories and the knowledge that they have and through their experiences, that definitely helped a lot. It just kind of got my mind on the right path and just to know what’s ahead for me,” Faltine said.

And it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience for outfielder and right-handed pitcher Braden Montgomery, a high school junior from Madison, Mississippi, who played in this year’s HAI and showcase game.

“Well, it definitely feels great because not even travel ball teams — even if I’m not talking about travel ball teams, probably about even going back home and my high school — there are maybe two or three black players,” Montgomery said. “And for me to be out here and to be able to play with a bunch of big players really means a lot because these are the players that’ll be the future of the MLB, will be able to make it, even though it might be more difficult for us to get that opportunity.”

High school senior Adam Love, from Roswell, Georgia, said he loves the EDI/HAI experiences.

“On my travel teams, I’ve been the only black kid on the team for three years as well, so being able to come down here and play with kids that look the same as me and have the same jersey as me has been a real experience. I’m very grateful for an opportunity that I … could come back all these years, and I have a lot of fun being with, playing with the guys, and just something I can’t take for granted being here. I love it.”