DREAM Series seeks to foster next generation of Black aces

January 14th, 2023

TEMPE, Ariz. -- With the decline of Black baseball players at the amateur level in recent years, the number of starting pitchers has decreased along with it.

But the DREAM Series is looking to remedy that. Hosted in Tempe, Ariz., during Martin Luther King Jr. Weekend, the event provides an avenue specifically geared to diversify the talent pool of pitchers and catchers -- two positions that lack Black representation at the Major League level.

“Pitching is not a glorious position,” said LaTroy Hawkins, one of the DREAM Series coaches. “Black kids, they love athletics, so they're going to be playing up the middle, playing center field, a lot more exciting. For me, I found the excitement in that nothing happened until I made it happen. As a pitcher, I had total control. Not saying I'm a control freak, but nothing happens until I make it happen. … I think that's a huge factor.”

Since its inception in 2017, DREAM Series alums on the pitching side include big leaguers Hunter Greene and Justin Dunn -- both of whom appeared as guests at Tempe Diablo Stadium -- and current Minor Leaguers Taj Bradley (the Rays’ No. 1 prospect, per MLB Pipeline), J.P. Massey (Pirates), Marquis Grissom Jr. (Nationals) and Kumar Rocker (the Rangers’ No. 8 prospect).

This year’s DREAM Series includes several notable amateur prospects looking to increase the number of Black MLB pitchers, including SEC commits Cameron Johnson (LSU) and Nazzan Zanetello (Arkansas).

“For me, I'm trying to follow in [Greene’s] footsteps,” Johnson said. “He’s been here and he's been through a lot of similar events -- the All-American Game, for instance. He’s throwing 102 [mph], I'm throwing 97. There's obviously some similarity between that, and not just velo-wise, because [of] just coming up and developing and playing these key events.

“Just to watch him play in the big leagues at a big stage and big moments, it's eye-opening. It's also a sign of motivation for me and for other pitchers. Since I'm maybe seen as a high-profile guy, I just want to stay humble and just keep working. And to know that he's there and I can get there as well.”

Johnson is, indeed, one of the most high-profile pitchers at this year’s DREAM Series, ranking No. 50 on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 Draft prospects list. With an upper-90s fastball, a nasty slider and a solid breaking ball, the 6-foot-5 lefty is following the Greene blueprint.

“I just want to progress to get better, and to develop my skill set to where I can become a Major League pitcher,” Johnson said. “I would like to be an influence for the youth eventually and for minorities like ourselves, and just to know that there's always a light at the end of the tunnel. And that there's always hope. I want to motivate them just to be the best.”

Zanetello, on the other hand, has gone through his amateur career as a two-way player. Both a right-handed pitcher and a shortstop, he’s the No. 58-ranked prospect in MLB Pipeline’s Draft 100.

“It’s an honor to be able to do both right now,” Zanetello said, while acknowledging that he’ll have to choose one or the other soon. “But just being here goes to show you that being around these guys really helps out a lot. You can pick their brains, take your own input and then make it your own and then pass it on to the next guy. So baseball is just a game of passing the baton.”

For both Johnson and Zanetello, it means even more just to be at this type of event, surrounded by players and pitchers that look like them.

“It's also a sign of growth,” Johnson said. “It shows that all these players, they want to be something, they want to get to the next level, whether it be college or professional baseball, and all the dreams and all the aspirations. They have an admiration for other players at a high level. It just leads the way and it shows a community and very good continuity between all of us.”

Zanetello added: “It means a lot, especially during MLK Weekend, where that's really highlighted. All that means a lot. It just gives you a chance to prove yourself while being comfortable in your own skin and being around people like yourself.”