Andre Dawson Classic shines light on MLB's diversity efforts

February 19th, 2022

NEW ORLEANS -- College baseball tournaments sprung up in nearly every region of the United States on Friday, a regular rite of passage marking the beginning of a new season. 

It’s a big weekend for thousands of ballplayers, including a couple hundred who have gathered at the New Orleans Youth Academy this weekend to participate in the Andre Dawson Classic -- one of Major League Baseball’s signature events. 

The annual tournament, which first began in 2008, includes seven Historically Black Colleges and Universities, plus the University of New Orleans. The tournament was founded in 2008 and was later named after Dawson, who, prior to his Hall of Fame career spanning 21 years, played baseball at Florida A&M University -- one of the seven HBCUs participating in this weekend’s Classic. 

The tournament itself might be an isolated event by definition, but its reach extends far beyond the three days of game action. Many of the ballplayers playing in the Classic came from MLB’s showcase events that they participated in as kids, with hopes to develop their skills enough to make it to the next level. 

Signs of progress are everywhere. Among the eight Classic teams -- University of New Orleans, Florida A&M, Alabama State, Grambling State, Jackson State University, Prairie View A&M, Southern University and University of Arkansas Pine Bluff -- 53 players are alumni from MLB’s diversity-focused programs. This is an increase of a whopping 112 percent from the last Andre Dawson Classic, held in February 2020. 

“It's just proof that what we're doing is working, and it just takes time,” said Del Matthews, MLB’s vice president of baseball development. “Year after year, hopefully we’ll continue to see more increase in more exposure and more opportunities for diverse youth.”

Among Andre Dawson Classic participants are 30 alumni from the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) programs, including several who competed in the RBI World Series international championship tournament.

On top of that, 19 are alumni from MLB’s Youth Academies, notably including 11 from the Houston Astros Youth Academy and six from the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy.

Thirty players have participated in MLB’s diversity-focused development camps, including the Breakthrough Series, DREAM Series and Hank Aaron Invitational. And four more are from the Chicago White Sox A.C.E program.

Many of these athletes will gain national exposure on Saturday, when two Classic games will be televised on MLB Network and streamed on and the MLB app. Of the four teams that are part of these showcase games, 24 include alumni of MLB’s diversity programs:

Alabama State
Jayden Sloan (Breakthrough Series, Montgomery River Region RBI)
Corey King (Atlanta Metro RBI)
Omar Melendez (Puerto Rico Carolina RBI)
Fred Stewart (Breakthrough Series, Hank Aaron Invitational)
KJ Kendrick (Montgomery River Region RBI)

Florida A&M
Kendall Clark (Hank Aaron Invitational, ATL Braves RBI)
Robert Robinson (Breakthrough Series)
Trenton Langley (Miami Marlins RBI)
Isaac Castro (Miami Marlins RBI)

Jackson State
Asher Akridge (Breakthrough Series)
Justin Johnson (Breakthrough Series)
Francis Thorne (Breakthrough Series)
Colby Guy (Breakthrough Series), Hank Aaron Invitational, Dream Series, Breakthrough Series Tournament Team)
Kenneth Bell III (New Orleans Youth Academy, New Orleans RBI)
Angel Escudero (Puerto Rico Carolina RBI)
Arjun Huerta (Curacao RBI)
Erick Gonzalez (Puerto Rico Carolina RBI)

Jah’li Hendricks (Breakthrough Series, Phillies Youth Academy, RBI World Series)
Justin Wiley (Breakthrough Series, Hank Aaron Invitational)
Jalon Mack (Breakthrough Series)
Jerry Burkett II (Breakthrough Series, Dream Series)
Caleb Tart (Hank Aaron Invitational)
Perry Kyles (Astros Youth Academy)
Nick Luckett (Astros Youth Academy)

“It's good to see the fruits of our labor,” Matthews said. “We’ve been putting in a lot of work with our Breakthrough Series, our Hank Aaron Invitational, our Dream Series, and just really encouraging the kids to keep playing and to work hard to do well in school.

“To see our numbers double from the last time we had this tournament, it's just evidence that the process works, and given the opportunities, these kids have a chance to thrive at the collegiate level.”

Rusty Costanza/MLB Photos

But the on-field portion of a player’s baseball career is only one segment of a much larger picture. MLB is committed to young people for the long haul. Yes, it begins with developing their athletic skills and getting them into college programs -- but that’s not necessarily where it ends.

Preparing young people for life after baseball is a major focus. Should players have aspirations to someday work in baseball, MLB executives are on hand to give them insight into just how to get there.

Sometimes it’s as easy as simply providing a tutorial on what to do to get a foot in the door.

“There's going to come a point when you have to take off that uniform,” said Tyrone Brooks, MLB’s senior director of front office and field staff diversity pipeline program. “There's nothing better than being able to do something that you love to do. We're trying to engage them, help them with opportunities, provide feedback on their resumes to help them and also make recommendations to clubs for different opportunities that do come open within our 30 Major League clubs and the Office of the Commissioner.”

Rusty Costanza/MLB Photos

Brooks oversees a diversity program that, in six years, has assisted in more than 350 hires, at all different levels of the baseball industry. That includes full and part-time positions, internships and seasonal roles, all designed to help underrepresented people get involved in the game. The program creates experiential learning opportunities through various initiatives, such as the SABR Virtual Analytics Conference, Diversity Pipeline Scout Development program, Take the Field and the MLB Diversity Fellowship program.

Brooks spoke to Andre Dawson Classic participants on the eve of the tournament, to remind them that baseball is there to help them, long after their college careers come to a close.

“A lot of times they don't know that exists, that it’s out there for them,” Brooks said. “We're trying to make sure that awareness and the education is there for them. I'm going to be someone that's going to be trying to support them in their careers, the whole time. I don't look at it as just a one-time thing.”