Celebrating baseball and beyond at Breakthrough Series

Former Major Leaguers ready to mentor young players at event in North Carolina

June 29th, 2016
Marquis Grissom is one of the former big leaguers mentoring youngsters at the Breakthrough Series. (Getty)

DURHAM, N.C. -- One by one, the 60 young men in the hotel auditorium stood up and introduced themselves. Some with more confidence than others, they gave their names, hometowns, and their positions on the baseball field.

These young men are juniors or seniors in high school, many of them African-American. They are in North Carolina as part of Major League Baseball and USA Baseball's Breakthrough Series, an initiative intended to present baseball as an option for youth from urban and underserved communities.

They will participate in three days of skills, drills and games at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary N.C., with instruction from former professional players with decades of experience.

After the invited players gave their introductions, they sat riveted by their coaching staff for the week. Among them were Dmitri Young, the two-time All-Star who was the No. 4 pick in the 1991 MLB Draft, Homer Bush, a World Series champion with the Yankees in 1998, Junior Spivey, who won a World Series with the D-backs in 2001, and Marquis Grissom, a two-time All-Star, World Series champion with the Braves and two-time stolen-base leader.

Each of the instructors shared a word of wisdom to the young men in attendance. Spivey shared his story of being a 36th-round pick in the 1996 Draft, and how that motivated him throughout his career.

"I had a chip on my shoulder, and every day I played with that chip," Spivey said. "Every day I out worked somebody. I had to let them know who I was."

"Making the right decision on the baseball field helps me make the right decision off the baseball field," Grissom added. "It's about learning more about yourself. The better you know yourself, the better player, the better person you'll be."

For the players, the Breakthrough Series provides an opportunity to not only receive outstanding instruction, but exposure to college and Major League Baseball scouts as well as the chance to test themselves against elite competition.

"It means a lot [to be invited]," said D'Aires Davis, an outfielder from Birmingham, Ala. "It's going to show me a lot of different talent and give me a lot of experience."

Davis, who said he was raised in a baseball family, looks up to the Reds' Billy Hamilton and Pirates superstar Andrew McCutchen. He hopes to take what he learns this week and apply it to his game upon returning home.

"I would like to get information about myself and what I need to work on," Davis said.

Spivey said it's important for young African-American players to be able to identify with Major League players.

"They need to see somebody that not only looks like them, but that comes from where they come from," Spivey said. "From Oklahoma, I had Joe Carter. Now, kids from Oklahoma can see myself, they can see Matt Kemp, someone that's from there. They definitely have to see more of us on television. To hear someone talk and share their story with that kid, that's going to inspire them, like, 'He came from the same conditions I came out of.'"

When Young was called up to the Cardinals in 1996, he leaned on Willie McGee, watching the veteran closely to learn the ins and outs of being a Major Leaguer.

"My dad told me to find the smartest guy and just hang out with him, and soak up as much information as I can," said Young.

When McGee asked Young why he was sticking so close, Young explained his dad's advice.

"He just said, 'All right, young blood. You'd better be ready.'"

And now these former players are continuing that legacy, investing in the game by serving as instructors at the Breakthrough Series.

"There's a wealth of knowledge right there," Young said of himself and his fellow instructors. "To me, there are no wrong answers. It's like a library; you pick and choose what's right for you and apply it to your game."

It's a tremendous opportunity to receive great instruction on and off the field, to be challenged by outstanding competition, to know that their dreams can come true and that they have mentors helping them along the way.