NEW ORLEANS — Competitive baseball is the centerpiece of the Andre Dawson Classic each year, but take a closer look at the atmosphere at the event, and it’s clear there’s much more going on than just the games on the field.
The annual gathering of baseball teams from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) at the MLB New Orleans Youth Academy over the weekend was all-inclusive, extending far beyond the chalk lines. Hall of Famers were in attendance as spectators. Former Major Leaguers, too.
And that’s the hook. MLB’s efforts to increase interest in baseball among Black youth has been an ongoing effort that began nearly 20 years ago with the building of the first MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif. Today, MLB Develops programming is helping to create a pipeline of high-level talent, an effort that was spotlighted in the 2022 Draft, which featured several Black players (and alums of MLB Develops programming) being selected in the first round.
The key is to capture an athlete’s baseball fandom at a young age. Create positive experiences early. And translate that into kids wanting to continue to play into high school and college – the age when many turn their attention to other sports, or lose interest altogether.
In New Orleans, the 12U teams – the Atlanta Braves RBI, Chicago White Sox ACE, Houston Astros MLB Youth Academy, New Orleans MLB Youth Academy and Texas Rangers MLB Youth Academy – played in their own tournament over the three-day event. They also spent ample time at the main field, watching the college games. During this time, many interacted with Dawson, who sat in the stands and greeted dozens of kids as they approached for photos and autographs.
In other words, the kids had fun. And they created memories that will, in theory and hope, encourage them to come back for more.
“The kids, they’ve got to start young,” Dawson said. “You have to keep it fun for them. They have to get quality coaching, first and foremost, and not this parents coaching stuff.
“Let them play the game and enjoy it for what it is – recreation. But they learn the craft, too. This can take them to the next level. If you can continue to work with them and help them get better, you increase their interest in the sport.”
Statistics show the efforts are paying off, and also hint that the 12U kids watching from the stands over the weekend have a good chance to someday be the college athletes playing in the Dawson Classic.
“The kids are behind home plate and they’re rooting for their teams, their friends,” said Del Mathews, MLB’s vice president of baseball development. “They’re playing in their own tournament back there and some of the college kids were looking back there and watching them play. It becomes a familiar environment and an opportunity where everyone is supporting everyone. They can now see a tangible pathway for them to continue to keep playing the game.”
“It’s a direct result of these kids getting exposure,” said Jerry Manuel, the former Major League manager and longtime instructor at most MLB Develops events. “12U, they’ve got a dream now – ‘Hey, I want to play on this field.’ To see all this that has taken place at this time is very rewarding.”
Alumni of both MLB Development initiatives and RBI programs were on every roster at the Dawson Classic, including:
The conclusion? The kids who just played in the 12U tournament appearing in the Dawson Classic in a few years isn’t just possible – it’s probable.
“One of the great things about this tournament, our kids don’t get to watch a lot of college baseball,” said Kenny Fullman, co-founder and program director of the Chicago White Sox ACE. “A lot of times our kids don’t get to see people who look like them playing college baseball.
“This is a great opportunity for one, to see college baseball, and two, to see a lot of African-Americans and diverse people playing college baseball at a high level. I’m so thankful for this tournament.”