Breakthrough Series greeted with excitement

June 9th, 2021

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Just as Ken Griffey Jr. grew up having a Major League dad, 16-year-old Cam Collier will have advantages that his father, former Major Leaguer Lou Collier, never had.

"When I came out of high school, I went straight to Florida -- Pittsburgh to Tampa," 75-year-old Ken Griffey Sr., said Tuesday, the first day of the Breakthrough Series at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex. "It was the first time I was ever on a plane. I had no idea who anybody was, so you had to learn how to become a teammate."

Today, as part of MLB’s outreach, dozens of diverse high school age players are flown in for three days of specialized instruction and training under the supervision of former Major Leaguers like Griffey Sr. and Lou Collier.

"When I was coming through, I was on my own," said Collier Sr., who played eight seasons in the big leagues with five teams. "I was growing up in the inner city [Chicago] and it was hard to change my situation. I was feeling my way through. I didn't have big leaguers around me. I didn't have ex-pros around me. These kids are blessed."

Forty high school athletes from 16 states were invited to this year's Breakthrough Series, which serves as a developmental opportunity for elite players who might not otherwise have access to such sophisticated instruction, training and technology. Among the instructors Tuesday were Griffey, Collier, Fred McGriff, Marquis Grissom and Marvin Freeman.

"The ultimate goal is we want them to play our sport," said Tony Reagins, MLB's chief baseball development officer. "A lot of these guys haven't played with as many African Americans as we have assembled here. Being in this environment hopefully gives them that spark and lets them know there's other people around the country playing the game, and they can be successful doing it."

The Breakthrough Series has become an annual event with the notable exception of last year, and there was an added layer of excitement this time around. It was the first MLB and USA Baseball-led baseball development event since January 2020, weeks before all activities were halted because of Covid-19.

"It's good to see these coaches I haven't seen in more than a year because of the coronavirus," said Cam Collier, a third baseman who has two years left at Mt. Paran Christian High School in Austell, Ga. "I love coming here. All these guys playing in the big leagues for a long time, and I can ask them any question I want. It's just an amazing experience."

The 6-foot-2, 210-pound Collier is ranked as one of the top players in the country in his age group. In the first inning of Tuesday's intrasquad game, he made as fine a play as any Major League third baseman could make, including his throw across the diamond.

"My son has been part of this program for the last three years, and I've seen growth in him that's hard to explain," said the elder Collier. "Watching that growth and being able to sit back and watch him grow and develop as a player has been wonderful.

"These kids already have elite talent. They just need to be guided in the right direction."

One of the purposes of the program is to guide them in the direction of baseball. The size, speed and athleticism on display Tuesday indicated that many of the players would have options in other sports.

Right-hander Emmanuel Dooley of Apollo Beach, Fla., pitched three innings in the sweltering heat at 6-foot-8 and 285 pounds. James Smith, who hit a two-run home run off Dooley, is a 6-foot-4, 185-pounder from Olive Branch, Miss.

Some of the smaller players were just as impressive. Termarr Johnson, a 5-foot-10, 180-pound shortstop from Atlanta, poked an opposite field homer over the wall at Holman Stadium, the Spring Training home of the Brooklyn/Los Angeles Dodgers from 1948 to 2008.

"Guys like Marquis Grissom, Lou Collier, Freeman -- they just give to us so much," Johnson said. "I can't pay 'em back. They're great guys and great people. It's fun being here and being a part of this."

Cam Collier appears to have been born to play baseball.

"I played a little basketball in seventh and eighth grade, but I wasn't too good so I kind of stopped," he said.

Del Matthews, vice president of baseball development for MLB, said, "Ninety-six percent of the kids, since we've been doing this since 2008, have gone on to college or professional baseball. That's something we're very proud of -- hundreds of kids that have gone on to college or pro ball."

Griffey Sr. was an all-state running back in Pennsylvania who said he might have played football if he had been given the option. But things worked out pretty well. He hit .296 in a 19-year career, played on two World Series championship teams in Cincinnati, and tutored his Hall of Fame son.

"Junior was the type who was very confident in what he wanted to do. He told me he wanted to be a Major League player, so I developed him in that," Griffey Sr. said. "I threw him batting practice from age 12. Once he got to 14, I couldn't strike him out."