A couple of months ago, Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. traveled to Myrtle Beach, S.C., to surprise a 13-year-old ballplayer going through a tough time in his life.
That surprise included an invitation to the Hank Aaron Invitational (HAI), one of Major League Baseball’s signature diversity-focused youth events. The development program is taking place at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., and Jordan Robinson, who was personally invited by Griffey Jr., is soaking in every minute of it.
“I was most excited for the learning opportunities I’d have -- learn how to hit better, pitch faster,” Robinson said.
A gifted student as well as athlete, Robinson, the only Black player on the Carolina Forest High middle school B team, endured alleged racial taunts from other players. His grandmother wrote to MLB asking for some guidance to help her grandson, who was close to quitting baseball after the experience.
Rather than opt for a pep talk via telephone, MLB officials -- including Griffey Jr., who is the official spokesperson for the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation as well as a special advisor to the Commissioner -- decided instead to pay a visit to Robinson.
“I was really surprised, because you never expect someone like that to walk into your school at 7 o’clock in the morning,” Robinson said from the HAI on Thursday.
With the ugly incident behind him, Robinson can focus solely on baseball, and he couldn’t have landed in a better spot to do so. The Hank Aaron Invitational features 27 former Major League players as coaches, and combined they have made 29 All-Star appearances and captured seven World Series titles. A small sampling includes Michael Bourn, Eric Davis, Ken Griffey Sr., Marquis Grissom, Brian Hunter, Fred McGriff, Mike Scioscia and Dmitri Young.
Practice, drills and coaching take place from morning until night. Robinson, who noted the high level of talent of his fellow participants, embraces the opportunity to improve his skills simply by playing alongside players with so much ability.
“I knew there was going to be a lot of coaching talent here, I knew there would a lot of better players,” he said. “Every good player wants to play with better players, wants to learn from the other players. I felt like I could really improve my game, myself and as a person.”
He’s also boosted by the sense of belonging.
“I just feel more included as a person,” he said. “I didn’t feel included [with the Carolina Forest team] because I wasn’t the same as the other people. It was a lot. You never think, ‘Hey, I have a lot of people like me playing baseball.’ And you put them all together, and it’s fun. It’s exciting, and I love it.”
Helping Robinson find joy again in playing baseball was the main reason why Griffey Jr. wanted to make that visit two months ago. He knew the Hank Aaron Invitational experience would be a positive one for a young person who had already been through too much adversity.
“It’s an opportunity of a lifetime for a kid who just needed a little help, a kid who loves baseball,” Griffey Jr. said. “A couple of adults ruined a moment for him, of being a kid. It’s upsetting and it should never happen. He’s a kid who just wants to be a kid.
“And now he’s out here with a bunch of kids his age, and having fun. He’s going to learn the things that my dad taught me. He’s going to be able to take that back and be ahead of the curve of baseball at his age. So it’s going to be interesting the next couple of years to watch.”
Robinson, whose favorite Major Leaguer is Padres third baseman Manny Machado, looked around at his surroundings and marveled at the opportunities the event has given him and his HAI teammates. He hopes to receive an invitation next year, too, and gave a strong endorsement for anyone who might have budding baseball skills and wants to take them to the next level.
“It’s a great learning opportunity, it’s a great time in general,” Robinson said. “The batting cages are open until curfew. You can go in there and swing as much as you choose. It’s just a great atmosphere. I would definitely come here if you want to improve.”