The final chapter of the weekend-long virtual DREAM Series took place on Monday in the form of an hour-long conversation between some of baseball’s most visible African American ambassadors. MLB Network host Fran Charles moderated a lively, insightful conversation intended to reach scores of young athletes who would, in more normal times, be on the field playing in one of MLB's signature showcase events.
Instead, retired pitcher CC Sabathia, former Major League manager Jerry Manuel, Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick and Charles had a back-and-forth online exchange that touched on several timely topics. All four brought a unique perspective to the conversation, but with one common theme: to encourage young African American athletes to continue to embrace a game still in search of ways to grow and become more inclusive.
“I thought that the problem was that the kids weren’t playing,” Sabathia said. “But the problem was not giving them the opportunities to get to some of these different tournaments, to get in front of the right scouts to be able to get to the next level.”
That’s what the Dream Series, and the many other signature events MLB hosts every year, aims to address. Now in its fifth season, the Dream Series focuses specifically on the dynamics of pitching and catching. It attracts a diverse group of elite high school athletes, predominantly African American, from across the country. The tournament is always held over the Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.
On-field strategy was a small portion of Monday’s conversation. Social issues, The Players Alliance and the importance of the Negro Leagues and its place in American history were among the topics the group touched on.
Sabathia, one of the more visible faces of The Players Alliance, spoke of the origin of the organization -- it started with a video of dozens of Black Major League players speaking out about social injustice in the wake of the killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police, and it then blossomed into a much larger movement.
Its mission is to help build more equitable systems that will lead to a more diverse game and to inspire young people of color to play baseball.
“We got the video out, and we were like, ‘What's next?’" Sabathia said. “We thought it'd be great to be able to impact our community, and keep having an impact on our community, so we thought forming The Players Alliance would be the best way to do that.
“We’re trying to impact baseball from top to bottom, from the youth level all the way up to GM/president levels. There's never really been a movement like this all together. We all do stuff individually, a lot of stuff. But we never did something all together.”
The conversation also included a history lesson. Kendrick, who has turned the Negro Leagues Museum in Kansas City into a must-visit destination spot, stressed the importance of understanding how the Negro Leagues fits into the larger history of baseball.
The recent announcement that Negro Leagues statistics have been added to MLB's record books helps in that regard, a significant step in acknowledging the incomparable talent that overflowed from the Negro Leagues.
“Major League Baseball essentially did in one day what we’ve been trying to do for 30 years in terms of rewriting the pages of American history books,” Kendrick said.
If one needs proof of the dominance of the Negro Leagues, look no further than what happened following Jackie Robinson’s debut in 1947: from that point on, nine of the next 11 National League Most Valuable Player Award winners had once starred in the Negro Leagues.
“People believed that the Negro Leagues were lesser than, and that was so far from the case,” Kendrick said. “Players in the Negro Leagues never succumbed to the notion that they were inferior to their Major League counterparts. But everybody else believed that the best baseball being played was in the Major Leagues.
“Essentially, if it didn't happen in the Major Leagues, then it didn't happen. But we sit here now for 30-plus years telling you, yes it did. It absolutely happened.”
Manuel, who managed nine years in the Major Leagues and is now one of MLB’s most visible youth ambassadors, envisions the future of baseball looking more like it did several decades ago, when Black players populated Major League rosters at higher rates than today. He wants baseball to be available for all kids, regardless of background.
“We know that we're missing a piece of the culture that can make the game better,” Manuel said. “That's the bottom line. We just want to make the game better, no matter who does it. We just want to see a better game. We want to see an athletic game.”