Hank Aaron Invitational cultivating leadership behind plate

July 27th, 2022

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- Setting up in a crouch, framing pitches and throwing out baserunners were on display from behind the plate Tuesday in the second week of the Hank Aaron Invitational, but one intangible was discussed frequently about the camp’s catchers.


“To me, leaders are born, and he’s a born leader to me,” said Jackie Robinson Training Complex instructor Lenny Webster of standout backstop Zion Rose. “Ever since the first time I met the kid, he was gung ho. Whatever you gave him, he accepted it.”

In his third time at the HAI camp, the 17-year-old Rose is a veteran on the grounds of the legendary facility.

“Just a minute ago I was talking to [fellow instructor] Dave Gallagher, who [Rose] is playing with this week, and he said, ‘Lenny, I talked to him. I told him I’d need his help this week to lead the kids.’ Zion said, ‘I got you coach.’”

And that’s what you get from Rose, a Chicago native nearing 6-foot-2, weighing 208 pounds and part of the Class of 2023.

With his mother, Karin, patiently observing outside the Teamwork field in the hot morning session, Rose participated in a bullpen session then took some 1-on-1 advice from Webster -- regarding receiving the pitching, and loosening up to cushion the pitch as it arrived rather than receiving the brunt of the impact with a stiff setup.

But the leadership aspect is vital and has to be a part of a catcher’s constitution -- one part athlete, one part overseer of the teammates he’s watching on the field and one part counselor to his batterymate on the mound.

Leadership simply cannot be overlooked while working through drills and staying at the complex named after Jackie Robinson, who smashed the racial barrier and set a high bar of leadership for future Black baseball players.

Unfortunately, not many of them who came along donned the gear and played behind home plate.

Perhaps the most famous on that too short list is Roy Campanella, the first Black MLB catcher in the Modern Era. Elston Howard, John Roseboro and Earl Battey also excelled behind the dish.

Webster had a 12-year playing career from 1989 to 2000, and Charles Johnson -- another JRTC instructor this week -- is a five-time Gold Glove winner during his dozen MLB seasons.

“I actually think [leadership] is one of the things that separates me from everybody else,” said Rose, who has committed to play at the University of Louisville. “I feel I’m a very vocal person on the field. My pitchers are going to be great because I’ll have good chemistry with them.

“I can pick up people’s personalities real easily so I know how to talk to them before we even get on the field. I’m straightforward with my pitchers. Some you have to be gentle with, some you’ve got to be more strict with them.”

Webster said the camp, which features Class of 2023 and '24 prospects, promotes players being outspoken.

“In camp, we teach our catchers that, as kids, they might be scared to be vocal, scared to be wrong, but it’s OK to be wrong in certain instances,” Webster said. “But just be that take-charge kind of guy. Say something. Something’s better than nothing."

“A lot of people are aware of [Zion’s] leadership skills, but he’s also a good ballplayer,” Webster said. “He plays the game the right way -- hard nosed.”

Former Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia said he has noticed the growth and athleticism of Rose while teaching him in multiple HAIs.

“When you see a youngster like Zion, first you see the growth because you’ve seen him for a couple of years. Then you certainly see the athletic ability,” said Scioscia, who won World Series titles in 1981 and '88 with the Dodgers and 2002 as manager of the Angels.

“You see a young man who’s really hungry to be the best he can be at that position. He wants knowledge and to understand the finer points. And he’s ready for them.”

Rose has a strong chance at being selected as one of the 44 players to participate in a special showcase game put on by the HAI, a partnership between MLB, the MLB Players Association and USA Baseball. The game will be played at Atlanta’s Truist Park as part of the Braves’ “Hank Aaron Week.”

Fellow catcher Nik Sanders, a Waco, Texas, native, is also a legacy of the HAI and likely will join Rose in the game.

Sanders, 17 years old and also Class of 2023, has no intention of ditching the position for a quicker path to MLB. He cites players who have taken off the equipment and moved to the outfield to be able to advance through the ranks.

Sanders is also excited about farmhands Ian Moller (Rangers) and Harry Ford (Mariners), two Black catchers who were high selections in the last two Drafts.

“I’ve been catching since I was 3, but [the Black catcher] is rare. It’s like a Black quarterback,” said Sanders, a 6-foot-3, 197-pound University of Texas commit. “My goals are to get to the league and make a statement. And also get kids who are a minority and show them to have hope and stay true to themselves.

“But I’m a catcher -- I’m here to stay. I like throwing guys out, controlling the pitching staff and making my pitcher look good. At the end of the day, it’s about my pitcher.”