HBCU coaches share wisdom at Hank Aaron Invitational

July 23rd, 2023

VERO BEACH, Fla. -- While every baseball player dreams of one day playing in the big leagues, there’s more than one path to reach that goal.

Kids participating in the Hank Aaron Invitational at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex this past week were exposed to additional coaching through a speaker series. Jose Vazquez, the head coach at Alabama State, and Roger Cador, the former head coach at Southern University in Louisiana -- a pair of Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) -- spoke at length to the players.

“Invest in yourself and always be thankful for the people that have put you in this situation,” Vazquez said. “Your parents, your aunts, uncles, your grandparents -- always make sure you thank them for being in situations such as this one. I know there’s a lot of people that would do whatever to be here.“

The Hank Aaron Invitational is an annual youth-oriented, on-field diversity initiative that aims to get high school-age players from diverse backgrounds to the next levels of the game.

Vazquez was born and raised in Puerto Rico. He attended college at Bethune Cookman University in Daytona Beach, Fla., which is also an HBCU, then joined the Alabama State coaching staff in 2011. On July 13, 2016, he became the program’s head coach. In 2023, the team went 41-18, surpassing 40 wins for the first time in program history.

Vazquez is also on the coaching staff for the USA Baseball Collegiate National Team.

“A lot of you guys are really good players, and what I want you to understand is, always put the team first; team concept is going to get you a lot of places,” Vazquez said on Thursday. “It might put you in situations where you may be less talented than somebody else, but the people watching and the people that are evaluating you are evaluating you based on those things. Being a good teammate, somebody that wants to work hard, somebody that shows good body language when things don’t go well. … We look at all of that.”

For Hank Aaron Invitational participant Harry Jones Jr., Vazquez showing him how there are paths to the big leagues through HBCUs was eye-opening and reduced some feelings of pressure.

“I don’t just have to go to a Power 5 school to get drafted,” Jones said. “I can go to an HBCU like Alabama State and still get drafted. It really takes pressure off of me because people want to go to big schools to get Instagram likes and all that stuff. So it really helped me understand where I need to be in college.”

HBCUs have also earned more recognition through events such as the Swingman Classic. The inaugural game took place during All-Star Week in Seattle on July 7 at T-Mobile Park.

For Vazquez, the game showcased what HBCUs have been doing for some time.

“It’s showing the type of baseball we’ve been playing for quite a bit,” Vazquez said. “It shows the hard work we’re putting in as coaches and getting players to represent us the right way.”

Cador coached at Southern for 33 seasons and was 913-597-1. In his tenure, Southern won 14 Southwestern Athletic Conference championships and made 11 NCAA Regional appearances.

He also coached , who played in the big leagues for four teams across his 14-year career. At Southern, Weeks won the Golden Spikes Award in 2003. The annual award goes to the best player in college baseball.

Part of what turned Southern into the program it was under Candor was the demands he made of his players.

“Demands are good because if you let a person do whatever they want, they’ll never rise up to their ability,“ Candor said on Saturday. “Don’t shy away from demands. Embrace them and try to get better.”

Photo by Jared Blais/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Cador also spoke about failure in baseball and the importance of being able to handle and learn from it.

“Baseball is a game that’s loaded with failure,” he said. “Up and down, no matter how you try. If you’re the very best player, you’re going to fail seven out of 10 times. How do you combat this? What do you do to get better? ... Don’t look at it as a negative. Look at it as a learning experience.”

How one should view failure is one lesson that really stuck with Invitational participant Shawn Mack.

“I like that because most people, when you strike out, don’t get a hit, everybody’s really disappointed,” Mack said. “Yeah, you’re going to fail in life. We should look at that as a learning opportunity instead of an excuse to get disappointed or in our feelings.

“We all make mistakes, but we should use them as opportunities to learn and use them to get better.”