NEW ORLEANS -- The pregame introductions of the Andre Dawson Classic in New Orleans on Friday included a moment of silence and narrative tribute to Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, whose passing last week prompted scores of people throughout the industry to pay tribute to the baseball pioneer.The remembrance at
NEW ORLEANS -- The pregame introductions of the Andre Dawson Classic in New Orleans on Friday included a moment of silence and narrative tribute to Hall of Famer Frank Robinson, whose passing last week prompted scores of people throughout the industry to pay tribute to the baseball pioneer.
The remembrance at the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy was appropriate for a couple of reasons: Robinson was one of the greatest to ever play the game and, as the first African-American manager in Major League history, he surely would have been pleased with the diversity components of the Andre Dawson Classic, a collegiate baseball tournament hosted by MLB that involves mostly Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).
Six of the eight coaches involved in the Andre Dawson Classic, named after the Hall of Famer and alum of tournament participant Florida A&M University, are African American: James Cooper (Grambling State University); Bretton Richardson (Alcorn State University), Auntwan Riggins (Prairie View A&M University); Kerrick Jackson (Southern University); Carlos James (University of Pine Bluff at Arkansas); and Edwin Thompson (Eastern Kentucky University), who coaches the only non-HBCU school in the tournament.
Of those six, two -- Cooper and Riggins -- played professionally. For Riggins, who ascended as high as Triple-A with the Padres in 2001, his ability to connect with players on all levels -- as an African American, a former athlete and a leader -- gives him reason stay in his position with Prairie View A&M for as long as he can.
"I have no desire to coach anywhere else," he said. "I played professional ball. I understand what it takes to play there. I never coached there, but I felt that my experience, my leadership for the kids in this conference would give them a better opportunity to play at the next level, as far as Minor League ball or Major League ball. That was the main reason why I wanted to get into this [Southwestern Athletic] Conference, to give back."
The partnership between MLB and HBCUs has been advantageous for both sides. More than 30 players on this year's Classic rosters are alumni of MLB Youth Academies, Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs or MLB Amateur Development Camps, such as the Breakthrough Series.
At least one player in each of the participating schools has appeared in one of MLB's baseball-development programs, and nearly 15 players are alumni of the Houston Astros MLB Youth Academy.
"I'm happy that Major League Baseball is giving these kids, [who] wouldn't normally have an opportunity to afford it to play it," Riggins said. "That's huge. In the next five or six years, you'll start to see a lot more kids get drafted and have an opportunity play at the big league level."
Major League Baseball has spent the better part of the past two decades fully committed to addressing the lack of diversity on Major League rosters. With the belief that interest in the game stems from two main elements -- exposure from a young age and simply being given the opportunity to play -- MLB has dedicated a glut of time and resources to expanding its platform.
"I tell [players] all the time, when I was growing up, if I would have had the programs they have now, I probably would have played 10-12, 13 years in pro ball," Riggins said. "I've been to these events, these workouts and they're teaching these kids the same as they're teaching in pro ball.
"What's more perfect than to be part of that, to have a chance to play at the next level?"
Moreover, the recruiting opportunities that have emerged from the MLB development programs have proved invaluable.
HBCU coaches work under extremely limited budgets and have to take advantage of any opportunity to discover untapped talent. Three coaches involved in the current Classic -- Riggins, Richardson and Thompson -- have been especially aggressive in their recruiting efforts surrounding MLB's programs.
"We don't have a lot of money for a recruiting budget, so going to those events allows us to see a lot of kids from a lot of different areas," Richardson said. "It's nice to be able to come back here, when we play in an event like this, to be able to have some of those kids play for us."
Now, Richardson's hope is that HBCUs can have more of a presence in attracting some of the better talent that comes out of MLB's development programs, instead of losing them to bigger Division I schools.
"It would be nice to see some of those kids be able to trickle down and come to the HBCUs," Richardson said. "If we can do that, then that would not only help the product that we as HBCU coaches put on the field, but it would also help as far as getting kids drafted and getting our program in the limelight a little bit."
Alyson Footer is a reporter for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.