Breakthrough Series about 'opening up equality'

Major Leaguers, former Women's National Team members participate in girls' baseball development program

June 16th, 2019

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Former MLB players Dmitri Young, Fernando Arroyo and Lou Collier have amassed a wealth of baseball knowledge over their combined 29 years of Major League experience, and they shared some of it as coaches in this weekend’s MLB Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series in Vero Beach, Fla., an expense-free development program that featured over 65 of the world’s best ballplayers.

The former Major Leaguers weren't the only big names on the coaching staff, though. They were joined by seven Women’s National Team members; former national teamer Veronica Alvarez, who coached for the A's during 2019 Spring Training; and Ila Borders, the first female to pitch in a men’s Minor League game.

“It’s been great to work with these coaches, USA players and stuff like that, and former MLB players -- you definitely learn a lot of things,” outfielder Tori Bravo said.

What the players learned most, Bravo said, were the small details of the game, such as opening their batting stances and footwork. In a sport as precise as baseball, minor changes like those could yield major results.

Young, a two-time MLB All-Star and the winner of the 2007 National League Comeback Player of the Year Award, is a testament to exactly that. He owns a career .292 batting average, hitting 171 home runs with 683 RBIs in 13 seasons.

“It’s opening up equality, first and foremost,” Young said of the Breakthrough Series. “This transcends past baseball; this is about the history of our people.” 

Arroyo is no stranger to coaching; he’s done so professionally for 15 years. But one thing stands out for him about the Breakthrough Series players: Their ability to learn and adapt on the fly.

“I’m very excited when I watch them make these adjustments and watch them grow, and there’s just a lot of potential for them,” Arroyo.

While Young, Arroyo and Collier reached triumphs of their own, the Breakthrough Series was about more than relishing the past. They were trying to instill the lessons they learned along the way to the next generation -- one that's more gender-inclusive than ever.

“Instead of putting up stop signs for them, we’re pulling out those stop signs and giving them the green light -- and let me tell you, they’re taking off with it,” Young said.    

Aiming for 2020

The 2020 Women’s Baseball World Cup is rapidly approaching, and many of the Breakthrough Series participants are anxious to see if they’ll join the action.

They’ll have a good idea of their chances now that the event has ended.

The Breakthrough Series is about skill development, but with all the talent assembled for it, it’s also a litmus test of sorts for the World Cup hopefuls. Players vying for roster spots got a chance to measure their games against one another ahead of the upcoming tryouts.

Only 40 players advance to the Women’s National Team trials from a much larger pool in the Women’s National Open, the preliminary team selection event. That number is cut in half for the final roster.

That pressure-cooker dynamic led to intense competition on the field.

“We’re all friends here, but it’s great to compete against one another,” Bravo said. “A lot of the girls here made Top 40, and it just makes you want to try and compete on the next level, because hopefully you’ll make Top 40 or maybe the 20 roster next year.” 

Like Bravo, shortstop Denae Benites is hoping to make the national squad this summer. And she’s confident that the lessons she learned in the Breakthrough Series will increase her chances.

Benites learned how to “think about the game differently” and adapt her everyday approach to it accordingly. Being selected to the event and learning those skills, she says, was a “once-in-a-lifetime chance.”

“I think my mental side of the game has definitely improved since I’ve been here,” Benites said.

Sixteen-year-old Jamie Mackay, a standout catcher from Laguna Beach, Calif., echoed that same sentiment. She learned the value of preserving her arm over a long baseball season and “keeping your head in the game.”

The opportunity for girls to attend a baseball development program as extensive and detail-oriented as the Breakthrough Series simply wasn’t there in years past. And Mackay likes to wonder what her 10-year-old self would think if she saw the progress that has come since then.

“If you told me I would be here getting all this cool gear, getting this top-level instruction, I would just be amazed,” Mackay said. “And I think it’s so great of MLB and USA to be making huge strides in girls' baseball, because I think it’s really important.”