'Next Level' highlights Black college athletes

February 11th, 2021

“It’s different being Black. It really is, guys. It’s different.”

Chase Davis, an outfielder for the University of Arizona, got right to the heart of the matter.

“You’re frowned upon a lot of the time and you’re doubted,” Davis said. “Everyone’s first impression of you is 'thug,' 'gangster,' x-y-z-this until you prove otherwise.”

Davis’ comments came during a five-player panel discussion on the transition from high school to college baseball entitled “The Next Level.” It was part of last month’s DREAM Series program, which is designed to share insights on what the experience has been like in order to prepare the next group of players who will compete at the collegiate level.

With the racial tensions that erupted across America last year, the subject was central to the discussion. The ripple effects are widespread, and amateur baseball is not immune to them. With 2020 in hindsight, the 2021 DREAM Series was different. It had to be.

“I just stayed focused, even through all the bad stuff that was happening,” Davis said. “It wasn’t easy, but I was able to get it done.”

Established in 2017, the DREAM Series is a showcase event held by MLB and USA Baseball that is focused on the dynamics of pitching and catching for a diverse group of high school athletes, predominantly African American, from across the country during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, this year’s DREAM Series was held virtually instead of on the field, but its impact was no less powerful. There were several online presentations during the event, which took place from Jan. 15-21, including panels with current and former Major League players.

The panel on transitioning to collegiate baseball included (right-handed pitcher from the University of Minnesota), Trey Faltine (shortstop from the University of Texas), Kyle Salley (left-handed pitcher from Duke University) and (right-handed pitcher from Georgia Tech) in addition to Davis.

A wide variety of topics were discussed to give aspiring collegiate players guidance about what comes next. But seizing opportunity in the face of adversity, particularly for Black high school athletes, was a theme woven throughout.

“The first question I get asked is if I play basketball or football,” said Grissom, son of former MLB center fielder . “I get those questions a lot just because I’m tall and Black. … But I feel blessed to [be playing baseball], because I feel like I can represent for other people.”

It’s already a challenge for any baseball player to transition from the high school level to college, but when you throw on top of that the preconceptions of society at large, the difficulty level ramps up.

“Nobody really expects a Black guy to play baseball,” Salley said. “ … It’s a big responsibility to be a good example for African American baseball players. … It’s not easy; you’ve always got your head on a swivel, always making sure you’re doing the right things -- there’s not much room for error.”

With those issues as the backdrop, the five players offered advice in areas such as work ethic, keeping the body in the best shape possible and setting realistic expectations of what college ball will be like.

Massey said that what a high school player might consider a great performance isn’t so great at the college level, and that’s important to keep in mind going forward.

“Most of us dominated for the most part [in high school],” he said. “ … But when you get on that collegiate level, for a pitcher -- I mean, I got lit up one of my outings, got one out. And I thought that was the end of the world. It’s just about finding a way to combat that and learn how to come back the next week and be just as mentally tough.”

In high school, many players neglect their health and they are still able to perform well on the field. But in college, you just can’t do that. Faltine said that was one of the hardest lessons he had to learn.

“People would always be telling me to stretch before the games or whatever,” Faltine said. “I listened, but I didn’t listen, you know? … Whereas now you’re in college, you play 60 games a year and you play the whole fall and you practice every day, so it takes a big toll on your body. … Going through that helps me teach freshmen or incoming players why these things are important and how it can help on the field.”

There’s no better teacher than experience, and for the five members of the DREAM Series panel on transitioning to collegiate baseball, that experience is turning into a head start for the next generation. It’s a responsibility they don’t take lightly, and it’s one they’re proud to carry.

“We got invited to [the DREAM Series] the past few years because we did well at representing who we were,” Davis said. “ … There’s a lot riding on my back, there’s a lot riding on everyone’s backs to represent African American culture the best way you can.”