CHICAGO -- Del Matthews grew up surrounded by the game of baseball, soaking in the conversations of the big leaguers around him in the time he spent with his father, Gary Matthews Sr. His brother, Gary Jr., followed dad's footsteps by reaching the big leagues.
Del's mission in baseball has been different -- to give others a chance to reach that pinnacle, particularly those who wouldn't have the opportunity otherwise. Matthews serves as the director of the Breakthrough Series, an initiative founded in 2008 through a partnership between Major League Baseball, the MLB Players Association and USA Baseball to help increase diversity in the game and give opportunities for high school players in the inner cities to showcase their talents. It also gives them a chance to learn from big leaguers such as Ken Griffey Jr. and Bo Jackson -- just like Matthews did from his father.
"In any profession -- whether you're a doctor, you're a lawyer, or you're an athlete, whatever it may be -- if your parents have worked in that industry and you take an interest to it, they have an instinctive knowledge about the profession," Matthews said. "They're in it, they're around it every day and they're the best at what they do. In athletics, it just gives you a unique perspective with how things operate, how people communicate with each other, how the game's played, just how the things that are happening at the elite level [happen]."
One of the biggest goals of the Breakthrough Series, Matthews said, is to increase participation among African-Americans in the sport.
"I think when you look at where our game has been and some of the issues that have been raised, decline in the number of African-Americans in [baseball], we're trying to address the issue," he said. "Hopefully it gives these kids the opportunity to break through and get to the next level, whether that be in college or professionally. They get some mentorship along the way. It means a lot."
The Breakthrough Series is stopping in Chicago for the first time -- the first of three stops for the series this year, along with Compton, Calif., and Bradenton, Fla., that will help around 180 high school athletes gain attention through showcases. This first stop means the most for Matthews, who grew up in the area and graduated from high school in Chicago before attending the University of Illinois-Chicago, where the Breakthrough Series is being held.
• Breakthrough Series has Chicago flavor
"It's really a homecoming for me, so it's really special to do it here," he said. "To look out of the press box and see the skyline of Chicago and know that we're impacting the kids from the city here -- given what's gone on recently in the last couple of summers with the crime rate and the different things that have happened in Chicago -- it gives these kids a ray of light to be able to know that they can come to a ballpark and they can come to the Breakthrough Series here and there's a chance for them to continue to go on in something that they love."
The Breakthrough Series, along with several of MLB's youth programs, have started to have an impact. Matthews pointed out 2017 No. 2 overall Draft selection Hunter Greene and Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks as proof of the success of the work he's done. With over 160 Breakthrough Series alumni having been drafted, including 16 in this year's Draft, he's hoping the numbers keep going up.
"Hopefully at the end of the day, we'll start to see more numbers," Matthews said. "We're planting seeds now, and hopefully in the future we'll be able to see the fruits of our labor."