NEW ORLEANS -- There was no shortage of star power on Saturday at the MLB New Orleans Youth Academy, site of the Andre Dawson Classic, a three-day tournament featuring six Historically Black Colleges and Universities plus the University of Orleans.
The headliner, of course, was the tournament's namesake -- Andre Dawson, a 2010 Hall of Fame inductee and regular attendee of the Classic that honors him every year. Dawson attended an HBCU, Florida A&M University, and two more former big leaguers were also in attendance who played their college ball at an HBCU: infielder Rickie Weeks Jr., who attended Southern University in Baton Rouge, and catcher Lenny Webster, who attended Grambling State University.
Playing college ball impacted all three in similar ways -- they credit those years as a time when they truly grew up, learned life lessons and prepared for their futures. They also feel attending HBCUs added to the positive impact that helped shape their formative years.
"The main thing for me was playing with people who were like me," said Weeks, who played 14 Major League seasons, mostly with the Brewers. "For the most part, when you come to an environment where everybody looks like you, you feel comfortable right off the bat. Besides that, it was eye-opening to me to see people who looked like me and who had different outlooks on life. That was good to see as well."
Dawson, one of two Hall of Famers to have attended an HBCU (the other is Lou Brock, a Southern University alum), recalled a request from his grandmother asking him to pursue an education. That's how it all began for him -- she saw college as a way to gain "an extra stepping stone in life," and Dawson, seeking an alternative after a football injury limited his scholarship opportunities, enrolled at Florida A&M and joined the baseball team as a walk-on freshman.
Dawson described his three years as a collegian as "a tremendous experience."
"I look back at it and I wouldn't trade it for anything," he said. "It helped me develop a sense of awareness of being a young adult. New relationships, meeting people from different parts of the country. Just the environment of college itself."
Webster grew up 20 minutes from Southern University, but opted to attend Grambling State (to the slight chagrin of his extended family). He was originally drafted by the Twins at the age of 17, but, seeking some life experiences before he entered the "real" world, decided to attend college. He never regretted that decision, one that was undoubtedly validated three years later, when the Twins drafted him, again.
Webster, a gifted student who skipped the sixth grade, never doubted his decision to go to college. He's also grateful he picked an HBCU, rather than consider some of the higher-profile schools that recruited him.
"It's much like a family environment -- that's how it was for me at Grambling," he said. "We have friendships that have lasted to this day, 35 years later. It's like a big family."
Though all three players had professional baseball in their future, they also realize that's not the likely fate for the majority of the young athletes currently playing in the Andre Dawson Classic. And that's perfectly fine, given the whole point of attending college and playing a sport while doing so is to get an education while learning how to balance both.
"We all can't play professionally," Weeks said. "What we can do, we can be good citizens, work hard, be the best people we can be. I'm a living example that you can get to the big leagues, but if that is not the case, you will be a model citizen as well."
Even if playing baseball isn't necessarily the end game, Dawson said, it's a fine way to transition into adulthood. That's the message the Hall of Famer hopes today's players absorb during their collegiate career, regardless of where their futures take them.
"What this kind of experience should portray to the athletes is hopefully you will gain a sense, a knowledge about how you can go back to your community and make a difference," Dawson said. "This should empower you to go forward and impact the lives of others."
Let the kids play
An extra event was added to this year’s Andre Dawson Classic: a tournament for youth ages 12 and under from Chicago, Dallas-Fort Worth and New Orleans, held in conjunction with the college tournament.
The intention of the 12 and under tournament is to provide participants a glimpse into the legacy of the HBCUs, as well as present HBCUs as viable options for both academics and athletics.
"If we can get them young, if we can get them really interested in playing the game at a higher level, and now these teams have the ability to play at this level," said Darrell Miller, MLB's vice president of youth and facilities development. "Now these kids can actually see guys that look like them, minority kids that look like them, and they can get to know them and see what the next level looks like. What the Division I level looks like."
It was surely an eye-opening experience for the kids, who got a taste of what it might be like in the pros -- nice hotels, convenient bus travel, complimentary meals and full days of playing baseball.
"It was one of those things where we said, 'Hey, listen, we're treating you guys like we treat our 18U kids,'" said Juan Leonel Garciga, the Texas Rangers' youth academy director. "How you behave and how you perform, not necessarily on the field, but off the field, is going to dictate if you get to return and continue to have these experiences.
"For them, if they're 12 years old, they'll have an opportunity to do this at 13, 14, all the way through 18. We're just really excited to see how they respond to this type of atmosphere and experience."
In addition to game action, the kids were recognized on the field prior to Saturday's contest between Grambling State University and the University of New Orleans. The pregame ceremony and game were televised by MLB Network.
Alyson Footer is a national correspondent for MLB.com. Follow her on Twitter @alysonfooter.