Swingman Classic players ready to change the game like Griffey Jr.

July 7th, 2023

SEATTLE -- Ken Griffey Jr. was a decade into his Hall of Fame career when Ian Matos was born, and The Kid retired when Matos was still actually a kid.

Thanks to technology and an internet teeming with highlight videos though, the 23-year-old was still able to model his center-field style after one of the best in the game.

And when Matos finally had the opportunity Thursday to shake hands with the Mariners legend himself, the moment, Matos said, was almost surreal.

"I just told him that it was really an honor to me," said Matos, who just completed his senior season at Alabama State. "To me, he's just such a big presence, an icon in my eyes. Every time I see a Ken Griffey highlight, I'm like, 'I'm trying to be like that; I want to do what he does.' He's one of the greatest of all time."

The 49 college players on the field with Matos on Thursday shared his excitement, with many of them taking time to jog over during workouts and thank Griffey for putting together the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic presented by T-Mobile & Powered by the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation.

The Swingman's main event takes place at 7:30 p.m. PT Friday at T-Mobile Park and is billed as a college All-Star game during All-Star Week. It will feature 50 of the top players from Division I Historically Black Colleges & Universities, selected by a committee that included Griffey, representatives from MLB and the MLBPA, and scouts.

"Growing up, we see what [Griffey] did for the game and see how he changed the game, brought swagger to it," said Grambling State infielder Keanu Jacobs-Guishard. "And now, we can do stuff that they couldn't do back in their day. So there's a huge opportunity to be on this platform and continue to go on a path that he paved for us. This is a big opportunity for me, too, and I'm very grateful for it."

Playing on a Major League field is not the only red-carpet treatment the players earned this week: The group was invited to participate in a variety of MLB All-Star Week activities, including a welcome reception dinner following Thursday's workouts, tickets to the SiriusXM All-Star Futures Game on Saturday, and various opportunities to volunteer in the community.

The Swingman's focus is to highlight the history and legacy of baseball programs at HBCUs around the country and to provide an opportunity for some of the top student-athletes from those colleges to gain exposure on a national level.

"This is something that basically started 70 years ago with Jackie Robinson, and then to Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Willie Stargell, and all the guys who are sitting here who I played against and played with," Griffey said, addressing the group at the welcome dinner. "We're all here because they believe the same thing, and that's the great game of baseball. And they want to see you guys be successful.

"I know that there's been some roadblocks, and I know not everybody can go to a Power 5 conference and be seen. But I'll tell you what: Everybody in this room loves baseball. I think we have that bond, day in and day out, it's what we think about."

Workouts Thursday looked a lot like a typical pregame routine, with players splitting into groups and cycling through stretching, batting practice on the field and in the cages, and throwing and fielding drills. It was also an opportunity for the players to get to know one another, share their stories and continue to build the legacy of black athletes in baseball, Ken Griffey Sr. said.

"They get a chance to meet some Hall of Famers, and then they want to show off what they've got," he added. "That's the biggest thing. They're getting an opportunity to show people what they've got, how they handle themselves on the field and with the bat. Everything out here in this situation is a plus for them."

The elder Griffey was one of many marquee names attached to the Classic, including Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, veterans Cito Gaston, Marquis Grissom, Rickie Weeks, MLB's chief baseball development officer Tony Reagins and more.

Now that he's graduated, Matos' "Plan A" is to play pro ball. For him, being able to spend time picking the brains of the greats who came before him -- an activity Griffey Jr. encouraged each Swingman athlete to do this week -- felt like a perfect way to continue to mold his game into a career.

"[Swingman] is definitely one-of-a-kind, unique, and my first time, really, in any big event, just meeting all these people that I watch on TV, and I just look up to," he said. "It's just amazing to me that I'm here."