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Breakthrough players take cuts in virtual derby

June 23, 2019

LOS ANGELES -- After three days of instruction and baseball games at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., 16-year-old Kobe Rolling was wide-eyed at his chance to take his cuts at Dodger Stadium on Saturday. Vision steady, bat over his shoulder, the left-handed-hitting Rolling fouled the first pitch down

LOS ANGELES -- After three days of instruction and baseball games at the MLB Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., 16-year-old Kobe Rolling was wide-eyed at his chance to take his cuts at Dodger Stadium on Saturday.

Vision steady, bat over his shoulder, the left-handed-hitting Rolling fouled the first pitch down the left-field line. Overcompensating, he fouled the second pitch down the right-field line.

On the third pitch, Rolling connected on a line drive that roared into Dodger Stadium’s right-field seats.

“I feel like I did really well,” the middle infielder said of a hitting session during which he hit five home runs, one a whopping 446 feet from home plate.

Rolling wasn’t actually at the Dodger Stadium. The Vacaville, Calif., resident and Will C. Wood High School student was actually three and a half miles away at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

He was swinging in MLB’s 3-year-old virtual-reality batting cage that put him right at home plate of the National League’s second-oldest ballpark, while the Dodgers and Rockies were facing each other nearby.

The MLB exhibit, which included two virtual-reality simulators and a traditional batting cage, was set up as a part of the weekend’s BET Experience in advance of Sunday night’s BET Awards in downtown Los Angeles.

The excursion for players like Rolling was a getaway from what has been a jam-packed schedule of baseball at MLB’s diversity-focused Breakthrough Series, which was set up as a showcase and development opportunity for high school baseball players.

The second-year event was based at the Youth Academy and included about 60 players from 12 states, some of whom were getting the first chance to meet one another, after first hearing about their exploits through reports, stories and social-media posts.

Darryl Dilworth, who is going into his sophomore year at Vanden High School in Fairfield, Calif., looked out over the vast indoor space of booths and exhibits from major corporations, sports teams and music-affiliated companies while music thumped nearby. The weekend seemed to keep getting better after starting with wonder and anxiety.

“I think everybody had nerves once they first came in to play, but once they got that first hit, or that first play of the game, then everything just chills out and you can be yourself,” Dilworth said.

With scouts and college recruiters in attendance at the Breakthrough Series, as well as former Major League players, managers and coaches providing instruction, there was a work element to the fun and games.

But the series was about more than just putting a player’s talents on display. There was a Prospect Development Pipeline (PDP) assessment that measured an individual’s athletic acumen, vision strengths and weaknesses, a swing analysis and a ball-flight analysis that included velocity, spin rate, spin axis and spin efficiency.

Each player received a report of the findings to help with development and optimization of talents.

“It’s an amazing experience and I have been so excited that I got chosen to be here,” Rolling said. “The players are great and the coaches are wonderful. It’s just been the best experience of my life.”

The Breakthrough Series is an effort by MLB to do even more for diversity in baseball. Players represented 10 Major League cities, including Atlanta, Baltimore, Chicago, Dallas, Detroit, Houston, Milwaukee, New York, Phoenix and St. Louis.

Even three states without a Major League team were represented: Arkansas, Louisiana and Nevada.

The effort by MLB was not lost on an appreciative Rolling.

“It means a lot to me because my family goes through some tough things,” Rolling said. “I have just enjoyed the experience they gave us for African-American boys to enjoy the game we love.”

After getting a look at the MLB virtual-reality batting cage, which will make an appearance in London next week when the Red Sox face the Yankees, the two bus-loads of players were off to partake in the rest of the BET Experience.

“It’s great to see the BET Experience; it’s something different,” Dilworth said. “A home run derby VR, I’ve never seen that before. There is a lot of stuff you’ve never seen, but it’s cool to take in.”