'Impacting a generation': DREAM Series creates opportunities for Black youth

January 11th, 2024

The Dream Series, now in its seventh year, will open on Friday in Tempe, Ariz. The event, hosted by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, will run over four days, concluding on Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday. A version of the story below was originally published in January of 2023 chronicling that year's event.

This Martin Luther King Jr. weekend, 80 of the nation’s top diverse, predominantly African American amateur baseball players descended upon Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Los Angeles Angels, and under the pleasant Arizona winter sun to embark on a long weekend unlike any they’ve experienced before.

They took batting practice to the sound of King’s “I Have A Dream” speech pumping through the ballpark sound system. They laced up in pro-style clubhouses, receive elite-level instruction from a fleet of former MLB players and coaches. By night, they attended seminars on King, Jackie Robinson and other titanic trailblazers to deepen their understanding of how those legacies transcend baseball, and how they can be continued both on and off the field.

“We really try to tie Dr. King’s dream to baseball,” said MLB chief baseball development officer Tony Reagins, who served as the Angels’ GM from 2007-11. “There is always this negative stigma around African Americans in baseball. It’s so important that we promote the fact that these players are out there, very talented players, and they love the game of baseball and they play. I think it’s the best-kept secret."

Elijah Green, Druw Jones, Justin Crawford and Kumar Rocker at the DREAM Series.

Such is the scene awaiting the game’s next generation of stars at the MLB DREAM Series, the four-day, invite-only annual showcase that’s become a flagship of MLB’s growing slate of diversity programs aimed at increasing Black participation in the sport. Run since its inception in 2017 by former American League Manager of the Year Jerry Manuel (White Sox, '00), the DREAM Series provides elite Black prepsters with a platform to showcase their talents in front of college and pro evaluators. It also gives them a taste of the big league experience. The event is designed to further develop the talent pool of diverse pitchers and catchers -- though, because athletes play multiple positions, instruction also includes other areas of the game.

“It was like going to your favorite class in school, the class you pay attention in more than the other classes,” said D-backs prospect Druw Jones, who participated in the 2020 DREAM Series. “Growing up, all my Black friends played basketball and football, and I never really got to see them. …

I don’t think it’s a race thing, that Black people don’t want to play baseball. It’s hard. It’s a very expensive sport to play,” said Marquis Grissom, a former All-Star center fielder and a regular DREAM Series instructor: “There ain’t nothing like it. There ain’t nothing like it in the whole wide world for Black kids and for Latino kids. They do an outstanding job of getting the best guys from around the country and bringing them into that great environment and get them some of the best culture. It's so, so rewarding.”

Along with related events like the Breakthrough Series, Hank Aaron Invitational and the Elite Development Invitational, MLB’s diversity initiatives are free and designed to introduce the sport to underserved kids, with an eye toward developing elite talent. The long-term goal is to help bridge the socioeconomic gaps that led to steep declines in Black participation in baseball over the past few decades.

“To me, success is impacting a generation,” Reagins said. “Giving these kids the tools to not only be good baseball people, but good individuals, good men and good men of character.”

Said Manuel: “When you don’t have that culture involved, you’re missing a major piece in the game. You're going to see the game begin to look like the country, look like the world. That's the idea.”

After years of building that foundation, that vision is now becoming reality. Black players comprised four of the top five picks in the 2022 MLB Draft – Jones (second overall, D-backs), Kumar Rocker (third, Rangers), Termarr Johnson (fourth, Pirates) and Elijah Green (fifth, Nationals) -- for the first time in history.

(Editor's Note: In 2023, Black players made up 10 of the first 50 selections (20%) in the Draft, while 16 of those 50 (32%) were from diverse backgrounds, including Black, Hispanic/Latino and Asian. Ten of those players are alumni of MLB Develops programming)

Along with players like 2022 NL Rookie of the Year Michael Harris II, Cincinnati’s and Twins prospect Simeon Woods-Richardson, a new generation of young Black stars is rising in the game, many with ties to these programs. Jones, Rocker, Johnson, Green, Harris and Greene are all DREAM Series alumni.

“Those guys were seedlings at one point, and now they have blossomed -- they’ve gone from the seed to the flower to the fruit, and now we get orchids of people coming to play,” Manuel said. “We’re starting to see kids migrate back toward baseball. The athlete that went on to play basketball, the athlete that could’ve been a great running back -- now playing baseball.

“We’re seeing guys that remind you of Dave Parker, Dave Winfield. We are starting to get back the athlete that we had missed, I thought, for a period of time. It seems like it’s becoming cool for the young guys now to play baseball. That’s the transformation that I have seen.”

Additionally, MLB’s Breakthrough Series has produced 285 Draft picks since 2009, while 49 picks since 17 had previously played in the Hank Aaron Invitational. All told, 23 currently active big leaguers who have made their Major League debuts and are at the minimum actively pursuing roster spots are products of MLB’s development programs --including All-Star reliever and Nationals first baseman .

“Being around those types of players, it elevates your game,” said Johnson, the Pirates’ 2022 top pick. “Meeting guys like me who look like me and play the game like me, it gave me a lot of motivation to keep going in the game.”

Druw Jones, the D-backs' No. 2 prospect, at the DREAM Series.

Baseball wasn’t always Johnson’s sole focus. He grew up playing several sports in the Atlanta area -- and idolizing basketball legend Kobe Bryant. His introduction to MLB’s outreach programs came via Grissom, who runs his own expansive Georgia-based development program and was coaching Johnson’s older brother at the time. Grissom encouraged Johnson to participate in the Breakthrough Series; he decided to focus on baseball from then on.

“He played with our 16- and 18-year-old teams at 12 years old … that was pretty impressive,” Grissom said. “Guys like that have great talent. They just need a little guidance, a little push or a little information and an opportunity.”

By the time Johnson played in the 2020 DREAM Series, he was one of the best prospects in the country. Suddenly, he was receiving instruction from Ron Washington, Lou Collier and other respected pros -- one big league mentor had morphed into more. That’s one of the many unique elements of the DREAM Series that leaves an impact on its participants.

“That was the first taste of seeing guys who were like me, who were just as good as me, and it gave me a sense of clarity on how much more is in this game,” Johnson said. “It prepared me for learning how to be a pro. It helped me with a lot and I’m so thankful for it.”

Said Collier: “I wish I could have had a little bit of that when I was coming up.”

Collier may have missed out, but he made sure his son did not. Cam Collier, the Reds’ first-round pick (18th overall) in the 2022 Draft, spent many of his formative years involved with MLB programming: three Elite Development Invitationals, two Hank Aaron Invitationals, a DREAM Series and a Breakthrough Series. He also played in the '21 High School All-American Game.

Greene, the Reds’ fireballer, also credited the quality of the coaching for the impact the program had on him. The work is a calling for Manuel, Grissom and Collier, all of whom run their own development programs at home throughout the year. Their passion and the nature of the work helps recruit an extensive list of talented instructors to these events, like LaTroy Hawkins, Mike Scioscia, Fred McGriff, Marvin Freeman and Ken Griffey Jr., among many others.

The roster for last year’s Hank Aaron Invitational alone comprised of 27 on-field coaches with a combined 29 All-Star appearances and seven World Series titles between them.

“It’s really great being able to get some tutelage and coaching from some of the best players to play, great coaches that are still involved in the sport,” Greene said. “That’s really special. A lot of guys had great careers as players, but now they're removed a little bit more from the game. So whenever there's some successful players that come back into the game, and are willing to give, to spread their knowledge and be a wealth of knowledge is really important.”

Said Reagins: “Creating opportunities is what’s really important, and passing the torch.”

Another notable MLB Develops alum: NFL superstar Patrick Mahomes, who was a two-sport prepster when Hawkins (his godfather, since Hawkins and Mahomes’ father, Pat, were teammates on the Twins in the early '90s) encouraged him to play in the Breakthrough Series. The experience gave Mahomes, who is part of the Royals’ ownership group and played college baseball briefly at Texas Tech University, a nuanced perspective: he knows something about choosing football over baseball, but also about the strides MLB is making to encourage more youth participation in Black communities.

“They are doing their best to get more American-born Black kids to grow up throughout baseball,” Patrick Mahomes told reporters in November. “I think as we continue to show [the game] in our neighborhoods, and it’s not about just basketball and football, and you see these great talents coming up, we’ll make that statement that we’ve made in the past.”

Jones, the D-backs’ No. 2 prospect per MLB Pipeline, skipped basketball games to attend the 2020 DREAM Series and “learned a lot of different things you don’t think about when you’re young.” He gave up basketball for good shortly after, and now credits the camp with “really changing my mind about Black people in baseball.”

“I see our game flourishing now,” Jones said. “I feel like guys like me, Termarr and Elijah are making it so younger kids want to start playing baseball more often. So that's good. That's the only thing that matters right now.”

Jones is the son of five-time All-Star Andruw Jones and attended private school, so he didn’t experience the socioeconomic challenges that keep many other minority kids from the diamond. Still, his experience highlights the impact the DREAM Series can have on players from a wide array of backgrounds.

“The other way our program benefits a kid is that he now sees other African American players playing the game, whereas normally you'll go to a school and you might see one kid of African American descent on the team,” Manuel said. “When they come with us, everybody is that, so it's a different feeling for them, that frees them to say: ‘Oh, I can be who I am and still play this game.’

“That’s a huge component. Huge, huge. That’s freedom.”

Elijah Green, the Nationals' No. 2 prospect, at the DREAM Series.

For many underprivileged kids, the lower cost of playing basketball and football at the amateur levels is a factor in gravitating toward those sports. They also provide quicker paths to the pros, where in baseball even the best prospects typically spend several years in the Minors.

But there is no one cause for the skewed state of MLB’s current demographics. Only 7 percent of MLB players in 2021 were Black, down from a high of more than 18 percent in the mid-80s.The '22 World Series between the Astros and Phillies was the first since 1950 not to feature any U.S.-born Black players.

“I don't think that's something that baseball should really be proud of,” Houston skipper Dusty Baker said during the Fall Classic. “It lets people know that it didn't take a year or even a decade to get to this point. But there is help on the way. You can tell by the number of African American No. 1 Draft choices. The academies are producing players. So hopefully in the near future we won't have to talk about this anymore or even be in this situation.”

When MLB hired Reagins to spearhead its diversity efforts in 2015, he knew its issues couldn’t be resolved overnight. Today, the league’s commitment takes many forms, from marquee events like the DREAM Series to MLB’s recent partnership with Black churches, with the most recent being in Sacramento, at the grassroots level.

“Baseball cares,” Reagins said. “Baseball is not just going to come into your community and leave. We're going to leave a footprint that's going to be lasting.”

So too, will be the effects on the sport itself -- that remains the goal. According to those on the frontlines of these efforts, the results they’re seeing now are only the beginning.

“We’re at the tip of the iceberg,” Manuel said. “Black kids are playing baseball. I didn't think they were until I began to get involved with this. This is where I want to stay and I want to see the fruits of the labor. I'm looking to find the next Black managers as well as the Black players that can play our game so our culture can get back involved in it.”