HOUSTON -- When Major League Baseball launched its Play Ball initiative, it was designed to get kids participating in not only baseball, but softball as well. Just play ball.MLB sponsors youth programs across the country. And for the first time, softball will be the center of attention in the inaugural
HOUSTON -- When Major League Baseball launched its Play Ball initiative, it was designed to get kids participating in not only baseball, but softball as well. Just play ball.
MLB sponsors youth programs across the country. And for the first time, softball will be the center of attention in the inaugural Softball Breakthrough Series, operated by MLB and USA Softball. There will be a diverse group of 50 high school softball players from across the country looking to improve their game and get exposure to colleges at the Houston Astros Urban Youth Academy on Tuesday and Wednesday.
The main focus of the event is to get the players seen by college coaches. There will be on-field instruction and presentations from the staff to prepare players for college life. Among the instructors are former college softball stars Jennie Finch, Natasha Watley and Venus Taylor.
"The fundamentals and the skills of the game, yes, that's important. But ultimately, I want to share the life lessons that I've learned," said Finch, who won an NCAA softball championship at Arizona and helped pitch the USA to a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympics. "The teamwork, the discipline. What it took to get where I was able to go play and travel around the country and the world playing the game that I loved, and that's what I want to point to them. I want it to be an open book for them. For them to be able to ask any questions they might have, and hopefully I can help and assist.
"With this coaching staff that we brought in, it's the best of the best, and so they'll have great leadership throughout this entire week, and hopefully we can encourage them to go and pursue their dreams. And to be able to not only play the game they love, but make an impact and give back to the cities they came from as well."
By invitation only, the 50 girls were selected from the MLB Youth Academies -- Los Angeles, Compton, Calif., Jersey City, N.J., Miami, New Orleans, Philadelphia, Cleveland, Tampa, Cincinnati, Montgomery, Ala., and Houston.
This is a showcase event, an opportunity to get scouted, be seen and receive excellent instruction.
"This is an awesome event because you might find a diamond in the rough," said Watley, a four-time first-team All-America infielder at UCLA and the first African-American to play on a USA Softball team in the Olympics. "These are girls that probably aren't going to go to those high-end premier tournaments in the softball world, where D-I college coaches go and recruit young ladies.
"My role is going to be Coach Tasha. As Coach Tasha, I want to be someone for these girls to bounce things off of. If they have questions, they can be softball related or they cannot be softball related. They can be academically."
One of the missions of the week is for the staff to talk to the players about NCAA compliance and the things needed to be eligible to play softball in college.
A large contingent of college scouts are expected to be at the two softball fields to evaluate players who demonstrate potential.
"It's so great of MLB to put this event on with USA Softball and really bring this type of exposure to our sport and the girls that play it," said Taylor, who excelled at Western Illinois. "You can see the excitement through the Women's World Series and the platforms we have and how dominant USA Softball has been over the years. We really want to continue to see that love and passion and development in softball with the young girls coming up in the next generation. It means a lot to the sport for MLB to put this on."
On Tuesday, participants will split time between defensive workouts in the morning and offensive workouts in the afternoon. The workouts will include infield/outfield drills, baserunning, throwing, sliding and hitting.
On Wednesday, the 50 participants will play in exhibition games.
"The purpose of this event is to get these girls exposed," said Destinee Martinez, event coordinator for USA Softball. "Some girls have chances to be exposed at other places, and some girls need opportunities like this. And we're glad to give them this opportunity."
The Breakthrough Series promotes softball as a collegiate option for youth from disadvantaged communities. There is no charge for participants.
"The exposure aspect is crucial to be able to play at that next level, and hopefully we can pour our hearts and our minds into these young girls and these athletes," Finch said. "Yes, talk about the fundamentals and the ways to get recruited and how to go about getting recruited, but most importantly teach them the life lessons that we've learned from this game."
The event in Houston is an extension of the Baseball Breakthrough Series that was established in 2008. Since its inception, it has developed into an instructional setting where top baseball prospects showcase their skills in front of scouts and college recruiters while receiving seminars from former players and MLB executives.
Instructors have included Jerry Manuel, Eric Davis, Dmitri Young, Homer Bush, Scott Erickson, Darren Oliver and Tom Gordon, with Hall of Fame guest speakers Frank Robinson and Dave Winfield. It combines on-field instruction and life-skills seminars to encourage personal and character development.
"We're really excited about this relationship with USA Softball as part of the Commissioner's [Rob Manfred] push for the Play Ball initiative," said David James, vice president of youth programs for MLB. "We know that it is important that we are embracing softball just as much as we're embracing baseball, providing opportunities for girls to play.
"We do five Breakthrough Series annually for the boys. This is our first one on the softball side, and the reaction we've got from leagues, the academies, these 50 young ladies, has already told us that this is something that we should expand in future years."
More than 115 former participants of the Baseball Breakthrough Series have been selected in the MLB Draft, including more than 90 combined from 2012-15.
Prospects participating in the 2016 Breakthrough Series are recommended by Major League Baseball, USA Baseball, MLB Urban Youth Academies, the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program, the MLB Scouting Bureau and Major League clubs.
Richard Dean is a contributor to MLB.com based in Houston.