HAI inspires urban youth to dream big

July 22nd, 2021

One hundred amateur ballplayers ages 13-18 are receiving an unforgettable experience this week at the Hank Aaron Invitational in Vero Beach, Fla., For some, this isn’t their first experience with MLB’s development programs.

Several players at the invitational have also participated in MLB’s Youth Academies. First baseman and outfielder Solomon McKinney, who has been going to the Washington, D.C., Youth Academy for about five years, said it has helped him advance in the sport.

“The experience is great,” McKinney said. “I wouldn’t be this far in baseball if it wasn’t for the Academy. I wouldn’t even be playing baseball.”

The Youth Academy initiative aims to revive baseball and softball in urban communities by providing recreational opportunities to local youths and preparing high school-age players for college and professional ball. MLB opened its first Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., in 2006. There are now eight Youth Academies across the country, with plans to open locations in Chicago, San Francisco and the Bronx, N.Y.

The Youth Academies mainly hold open workouts that target fundamental skills in baseball and softball. There is also an academic component, as the program is intended for school-age players. David Hogg II, a shortstop and outfielder who attends the Rangers Youth Academy, said the experience has helped him develop on and off the field.

“The Academy, during the school year, is something that’s really helpful, because obviously, you want to keep yourself good in baseball, stay polished and all that, so they take that serious, but school is way more important,” Hogg said. “As soon as you get to the Academy after school, you do your homework -- they help you out with stuff you need help on -- and then you go out there to the cages, to the field, put some extra work in and repeat every day.”

Players were selected for this year’s Hank Aaron Invitational from a number of MLB development programs, including the Youth Academies. Hogg, at his second Hank Aaron Invitational, said these programs have opened the door to elite opportunities.

“I know this is something I really want to take seriously, so coming from there, all the coaches are helping me out and taking me to these events out of state,” Hogg said. “It’s amazing, getting the chance to fly out here and be out here around these great guys.”

This year marks the third Hank Aaron Invitational for outfielder and pitcher Mekai Griffin, who has participated in the D.C. Youth Academy. For him, the depth of knowledge from the coaching staff and the chance to meet players from all over the country make the invitational a special experience.

“It’s awesome,” Griffin said. “I mean, these coaches are really cool, and being able to help me out every year … and helping me gain knowledge and letting them just share their information with me is everything.

“Meeting new people, all the new kids from out of state, and getting to know their style and how they go, how they flow -- just, it’s real cool.”

Some MLB Youth Academy participants may have their sights set higher than the Hank Aaron Invitational. Many players who have participated in the invitational, along with other MLB development programs, have gone on to play professional ball. MLB chief baseball development officer Tony Reagins sees that as an extra motivator for young ballplayers.

“Especially when they start to see some of the pictures around the facility where a guy like Kyren Paris was standing next to the Commissioner six years ago, and now he’s playing in the Angels' organization,” Reagins said. “So, the realness is probably one of the things that really stands out, because I think they have hope that, you know, 'It could be me one day.'”