Griffey's Swingman debut knocks it out of the park

July 8th, 2023

SEATTLE -- At a team dinner the night before the inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic, sat among the 50 players that were selected for the event and fielded questions throughout the meal. One stood out in particular from an eager student-athlete ahead of the event that kicked off All-Star Week at T-Mobile Park. 

“Is it OK to be nervous?” the player asked, to which Griffey responded, “Yeah, it’s OK to be nervous. Everybody gets nervous. Opening Day, you get nervous. The most nerves I ever had were on Opening Day. After that, it settled down.”

That moment was a microcosm of what this entire event is about, the first of its kind bridging baseball tradition at Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) with All-Star Week.

Even more so, it’s given the student-athletes a platform of exposure, from playing on a national stage on MLB Network and in front of scouts, to being entrenched with iconic coaches, such as Ken Griffey Sr., Cito Gaston, Lester Strode, Andre Dawson, Rickie Weeks, Marquis Grissom and many more whose careers began at HBCUs.

“I was just telling the kids, it’s about them,” Griffey told MLB Network commentators Harold Reynolds and Dave Sims on the live telecast. “It’s not about the guys that are coaching. It’s about the next generation of ballplayers. Ask all the questions you want. There’s a million years of baseball knowledge in this room. Use it. Get every question you want from guys that played.”

The pomp, circumstance and pageantry more than lived up to the hype throughout the evening, perhaps most notably the sense of surrealism. 

During the fifth inning, Kewan Braziel of Alcorn State University, who pitched a scoreless third inning, was honored on the field with the Impact Award, recognized for his leadership and commitment to being an impactful member of their community on and off the field.

“It means a lot, honestly,” Braziel said on the telecast. “My whole life I’ve been in a leadership position. I was a little nervous coming out here, but I was glad I was able to put on a show and win this award from everybody.”

Braziel then turned to Griffey and asked what his biggest learning curve was upon reaching The Show -- further encapsulating what this event is all about. 

“The adjustment was, number one, knowing who you are,” Griffey said. “For me, having a dad who played, I knew what it took to be a Major Leaguer at age 14. I still had to go through the learning curve and the bumps and bruises. ... It made me hungry. It made me want to get to the big leagues as fast as I could. The one thing for me was, every day is about baseball. What can I do to improve myself day in and day out?”

The inaugural event was a roaring success that celebrated the accomplishments of these ambitious young players, many of whom had never voyaged to this part of the country, let alone played in an MLB venue.

“These kids, not everybody can go to a Power 5 conference and spend 20, 30 or 40 thousand dollars per a year to go to a school like that,” Griffey said. “Sometimes, it comes down to economics and where you’re going to play.”

Since the NCAA only allows 11.7 scholarships per team for baseball, most players are on a partial scholarship and have to weigh the size of their scholarship against total tuition when choosing where to play.

Prior to the game, icons of the Negro Leagues, including Sam Allen, Pedro Sierra and the great-grandson and great-great-granddaughter of Josh Gibson, donned replica jerseys of their former teams of yesteryear as they were recognized pregame. Griffey, Weeks and Ralph Garr stood behind the mound before Dawson threw out the ceremonial first pitch to former Mariner Vince Coleman, both HBCU graduates at Florida A&M University.

The anthem was performed by Grammy Award nominee and gospel musician Todd Dulaney, and it followed a performance from the Songs of Black Folk Celebration Chorus. The Dolls & Gents Drumline performed beyond second base as players warmed up, then again between the third inning on top of the dugouts. Bruce Harrell, the first African-Asian American Seattle mayor, shouted “Play ball!” just before the game began.

Throughout the game, Griffey invited student-athletes to speak with Sims and Reynolds on the broadcast. He also shared how his idea for Swingman blossomed into reality, recalling a middle-of-the-night awakening that prompted a call to Tony Reagins, MLB’s chief baseball development officer, and Del Matthews, MLB's vice president of baseball development. Beyond the thrill for the game’s participants on Friday, Swingman is just as important for the next generation who tuned in.

“I wanted them to watch a game with the college kids so they could see their future,” Griffey said. “We got to talking, and I said, ‘The game is in Seattle, what about the All-Star Game before the All-Star Game?’ And that’s when it was like, ‘Oh my.’ It took a couple days and they said, ‘Let’s see what it can become,’ and it’s here. It’s a lot of work for a lot of people, and not just me.”

Debuting Swingman in Seattle, where Griffey blossomed into one of his generation’s best players, was a fitting venue. But it’s likely -- especially after the success in year one -- that this becomes an annual celebration of HBCUs in conjunction with All-Star Week.