DREAM panel helps guide young ballplayers

January 13th, 2024

TEMPE, Ariz. -- As took the stage alongside MLB Network host Harold Reynolds on Friday night, the impressionable audience before him -- many of whom hadn’t even taken their first steps yet when he began his big league managerial career in 2007 -- rose to their feet to offer a standing ovation.

The Angels’ manager was one of a series of guest speakers invited to the 2024 DREAM Series, a Major League Baseball and USA Baseball development event for predominately Black elite high school athletes geared toward the dynamics of pitching and catching. It was fitting for Washington to be in attendance, given that the event -- held annually since 2017 in concurrence with Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend -- takes place at Tempe Diablo Stadium, the Spring Training home of his new club.

In front of more than 80 DREAM Series participants packed into the neighboring hotel’s amphitheater, Washington pulled out a sheet of paper upon which he had handwritten notes that contained as much of the knowledge about a life in baseball as he could come up with for those aspiring toward the same.

“I was once like you guys,” Washington said. “It had been a goal to be a Major League Baseball player, but I didn’t have the opportunity that you guys have. I’ve never been flown somewhere to get trained from a Major League player, Major League coach, Major League managers -- never had that opportunity. And I’ll tell you what, take advantage of it. Because my trail to where I am today wasn’t easy.”

The same could be said for all the current and former players who took the stage to share their experiences of breaking into the big leagues, including , Chris Young, , and . In what became the theme of the evening, each guest spoke about the ways in which he had to overcome adversity in order to make his MLB dream a reality.

For Tucker, a 2014 first-round MLB Draft pick out of Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix, baseball had always come easy. That changed when he reached the Majors with the Pirates in ’19.

“I got handed my first bit of real true baseball adversity as a 22-year-old in the big leagues, playing shortstop, hitting leadoff, scared out of my mind,” said Tucker, who’s currently a free agent. “But I want you to know that that’s not everybody’s journey. I mean, some of you guys are going to go on to be All-Stars, World Series champions -- baseball can do so much for you. But the grind and showing up every day, that’s what you learn. And that’s the separator of getting there and not getting there.”

Gray, who was ranked on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100 overall prospects list starting in 2020, similarly coasted through his Minor League career. But in ’22, the Nationals right-hander gave up the most homers of any MLB pitcher (38) and the most walks of any NL pitcher (66). In ’23, he earned his first career All-Star selection.

“Last year, I did a really deep dive into, ‘How can I become the pitcher I want to be?’ … I was only a few years removed from dominating, being a top prospect within a couple of different organizations,” Gray said. “So I was like, ‘How do I get back to that?’ I went out there with the best confidence that I could, using every resource that I had available to me.”

For Johnson, the adversity came earlier in the journey. He told the story of his Cape Cod League coach, who came to his house in the summer of 2011 to tell him to go home because he wasn’t going to get enough playing time at that level. Four years later, Johnson later became the first player on that team to reach the Majors.

“It’s true, maybe I wasn’t the best player on that team at that time,” Johnson said. “That just told me I need work, so I’m going to stay here and work. I’m not going to go lower my standards to another league. I’m going to stay here and compete with the best players.

“And what’s cool about that is what baseball really teaches you, because you do fail so many times and there are coaches [you] will go through who don’t think you’re good enough or [say] you’re not going to play as much as you think you should play. That applies to life.”

It’s a lesson Johnson carries with him in his new career as an artist, one whose work has been featured on the cover of TIME magazine. And it’s a point that Young reiterated, knowing that not all of the DREAM Series participants will go on to have 13-year MLB careers like him.

“I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but every single one of you in this room right now feels like you’re going to be in the big leagues,” Young said. “I was your age. When I was that age, I knew for sure that me, my homeboy next to me, my other homeboy -- we all were going to be in the big leagues, and it’s going to be the best ride of our lives and it’s going to be amazing. But it’s just not reality.

“So I think events like this matter because it equips you for more than just being a big league ballplayer. If you guys aren’t big league ballplayers, you can still be extremely successful in life.”