Dawson Classic is 'full circle' for MLB diversity programs alumni

February 20th, 2022

NEW ORLEANS -- Long before he was old enough to participate in the Andre Dawson Classic, Jahli Hendricks watched the tournament on MLB Network with his dad, a yearly tradition between father and son.

Hendricks grew up in south Philadelphia, which, geographically speaking, was nowhere near any of the schools he was watching in the Classic. But his interest was piqued, enough that he eventually looked into one of the schools playing in the tournament -- Southern University, located in Baton Rouge, La.

“I was getting into my high school years and my dad said, ‘You should look them up.’” Hendricks recalled. “I looked into who their coaches were, what kind of guys they had. I am not from Louisiana -- at all. But I said, ‘Why don’t I reach out?’”

In a pleasant turn of events, Southern ended recruiting Hendricks, which is how he ended up playing second base for the school in a nationally televised game on Saturday afternoon, as part of the Andre Dawson Classic.

“Later down the road, it ended up coming full circle,” said Hendricks, who as a youth played in both the RBI World Series and Little League World Series.

The Dawson Classic, which began in 2008 and was named after the Hall of Famer in 2018, features seven Historically Black Colleges and Universities, plus the University of New Orleans. It is played annually at the New Orleans Youth Academy and traditionally, two games are featured each year on MLB Network.

It’s a win-win for all sides -- the players get national exposure as they work to advance their playing careers, and the schools gain attention that could serve as a recruitment tool, as was the case with Hendricks. It’s all part of MLB’s continuing effort to add talent to its pipeline, and to create exposure for all young people who have aspirations to play baseball, at every level.

“Playing this tournament, there’s a lot of mentoring, too,” Hendricks said. “You feel like this is going to help you go on in life and in your college career.”

The grooming starts early, years before it’s time to start applying to colleges. Fifty-three players in the Andre Dawson Classic participated in MLB’s diversity-focused programs as youngsters, a 112 percent increase from just two years ago. Those programs, such as the Hank Aaron Invitational and Breakthrough Series, not only provide mentorship opportunities with former Major Leaguers and managers, but they also give players with elite talent the chance to play against peers with similar athletic gifts, which naturally helps them elevate their game and prepare them for the next level.

Two alumni of both the Hank Aaron Invitational and Breakthrough Series were on teams whose games were televised by MLB Network on Saturday -- Southern University infielder Justin Wiley and Alabama State University catcher Fred Stewart. They grew up as best friends in Birmingham, Ala., where football and basketball were more popular than baseball.

MLB’s development events gave them a place to test their skills against the best from around the country.

“Some of the talent you see in your hometown is not the same when you go out of town,” Stewart said. “It’s just better talent.”

Playing in the Aaron Invitational and Breakthrough Series “makes you better the person, a man, a baseball player and just helps you with life,” Stewart added. That cycle continues into adulthood, with MLB hosting several mentorship events aimed at preparing young people for life beyond the playing field.

“They talk to us about life after baseball,” Wiley said. “Even if you don’t make it in sports, there are things you can do around the sport, with jobs. They mentor us about all of that.”

VIPs at the Classic

The Andre Dawson Classic featured several dignitaries in attendance, including the tournament’s Hall of Fame namesake. Other former big leaguers in attendance were Gary Matthews Jr., Marvin Freeman and Jerry Manuel.

Prior to the Jackson State-Southern game, former Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond, senior advisor to President Joe Biden and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement, threw out the ceremonial first pitch. Richmond was born and raised in New Orleans.

Former Louisiana congressman Cedric Richmond throws out the first pitch Saturday. (Rusty Costanza/MLB Photos via Getty Images)

Behind-the-scenes tour

The weekend’s events at Wesley Barrow Stadium included a special tour for members of the Youth Academy’s Junior Broadcasting and Sports Law vocation program. The group was given a behind-the-scenes look at MLB Network’s operation, from the very spot where all of the action is -- the television truck.

Producers and directors explained what goes into putting on one telecast -- how the monitors work, how they communicate back to the Network headquarters in Secaucus, N.J., and how they get in sync with the on-air talent.