Andre Dawson Classic reunites Swingman Classic participants

February 24th, 2024

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Every ballplayer understands that once is never enough. You can’t just hit one home run, strike out one batter or steal a base one time to convince a scout of your abilities. It’s about repetition, showing that you possess an aptitude for consistency. But for that, there needs to be repeated chances for exposure to be seen and display the fruits of growth and hard work.

And at the Andre Dawson Classic at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., there’s a slew of players who find themselves on the national stage again at an MLB-hosted event, and acclimating to the spotlight. Nine players from the six programs competing this weekend participated in the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic last year at T-Mobile Park during the All-Star Week festivities in Seattle. That event showcased 50 of the top HBCU players from across the country.

For those nine, the repeated chance to display the talent that they know they have isn’t just appreciated, it’s invaluable.

“It’s a blessing from my Lord and savior,” said Khyle Radcliffe, a right fielder for Southern University. “You don’t really get that opportunity a lot coming from the South Side of Chicago. So to be able to play at the prestigious Southern University, and get the opportunity to play in front of thousands of people on the national stage and have them watch us and put my talent on display. Can’t do anything but thank the Lord.”

Radcliffe was one of the nine 2023 Swingman Classic participants, along with Alabama State players Randy Flores, Jamal George, Ali LaPread and Luis Rodriguez, to play in the second game on Friday at the Andre Dawson Classic. Southern defeated Alabama State, 7-1, with Radcliffe going 2-for-4 with a solo homer and three RBIs. The four others -- Cameron Bufford, Trevor Hatton, Kyle Walker and Keanu Jacobs-Guishard -- play for Grambling State University, which faced Florida A&M University in the third game Friday.

Even though those nine players are months removed from the Swingman Classic, the rosy feelings and special memories are still fueling their journey through baseball. Highlights range from playing in front of a packed crowd in an MLB ballpark to being managed by and receiving guidance from shepherds of the game, like former manager Jerry Manuel, Hall of Famers Dawson and Ken Griffey Jr. and former legendary HBCU Major Leaguers Marquis Grissom and Lenny Webster.

But what persists is the motivation that stems from seeing fellow HBCU athletes compete and excel at the highest level and on the biggest stages.

“[I let them know] that we’re here,” said LaPread, sharing a peek into the conversations he has with his teammates. “I’m saying it’s not just a predominantly white game anymore. Take the game seriously and they’ll take you seriously as well.”

Said Flores, a senior leader for Alabama State: “Since I’m a little older than my teammates, I tried to tell them to just enjoy every moment because it goes quick. … All these opportunities that we get to come to these events and the Swingman Classic, just enjoy the moment and learn as much as you can from your peers.”

The competitive aspect, combined with the opportunity to display the breadth and depth of talent they hold, will always be a priority. You can hear it from the chirps from the dugout with every strikeout, the screams and fits of celebration with run-scoring doubles and big defensive plays. The emotional bursts at the turning points where losses become wins are reminders that each player in each program is playing toward a larger goal -- whether it be a championship or the next level.

Talking to the players about their favorite aspects of playing and competing at an HBCU, a common thread appears in almost every interview. When it comes down to it, playing college baseball at an HBCU feels like you’re playing with family, even with the meshing of different cultures and personalities, as Flores notes. And that inherent comfort and understanding is worth its weight in gold.

“We treat each other like brothers,” Radcliffe said. “Coming to Southern University last year, I was nervous [about] coming into a new school. I didn’t know what to expect, but everybody on the team opened their arms to me and my brother, they took us in like a family. It’s a family.”

“Just coming to the ballpark every single day, those are my brothers," said LaPread. "We’re really a family. It’s tight-knit.”