Love of game leads wave of inner-city players

June 21st, 2017
"It's a tremendous effort from the Players Association and from [MLB]," Jerry Manuel said. (@BTS_MLB)

CHICAGO -- With a captive audience of teenagers gathered around him, Ken Griffey Jr. was holding court on Wednesday morning.

Griffey was talking about his oldest son, Trey, picking football over baseball. A wide receiver at the University of Arizona, he's currently on the Injured Reserve list with the Indianapolis Colts.

• Griffey gives wisdom at Breakthrough Series

"Everybody asks, 'Why doesn't he play baseball?'" Griffey said. "My answer is, 'You can't teach somebody love of the game.' You guys love baseball. He loves football. ... You can't teach that love. You have to love baseball."

There's little question that the 60 players gathered at Stadium on the University of Illinois-Chicago campus love baseball.

They will be high school juniors or seniors in the fall at inner-city schools, and they've come here for a three-day clinic/showcase called the Breakthrough Series, which is a joint project of Major League Baseball and the MLB Players Association.

Julian Boyd, a left-handed pitcher-outfielder for St. John Bosco High in Bellflower, Calif., will play quarterback one more season before leaving football behind to concentrate on a baseball career. Isaiah Bennett, a star on soccer teams most of his life, has two more seasons of baseball ahead of him at Pine Forest High in Fayetteville, N.C., but baseball has become such a passion that he needs a travel agent.

"As soon as I leave here, I'm heading down to Florida for the USA East championships," Bennett said. "While I'm down in Florida, I have to go to Miami for the Area Code [Game] tryouts, and then I go home. Hopefully if I make the USA thing, I'm right back up here to Chicago."

With decreasing percentages of African-American players at the highest level, MLB is entering its fourth decade working to develop players long before they have to be scouted and identified for the Draft. It's been a continuing effort for many executives and scouts, including former Mets general manager Omar Minaya.

The late John Young, a longtime scout for the Rangers who was based in Southern California, founded the RBI program (Reviving Baseball in the Inner City), which started the ball rolling for newer programs like Urban Youth Academies and the Breakthrough Series.

"I remember the first time John Young spoke to me about RBI," said Minaya, who works on youth initiatives for the Players' Union. "It was 1984, on a flight to Venezuela. It was right after the '84 Olympics, and John had this vision about inner-city baseball. There was a reduction, he noticed, in inner-city kids playing baseball. It was when basketball started becoming more popular. He had a vision about the youth baseball and developing the African-American kids."

Griffey, a Hall of Famer who hit 630 home runs in his big league career, watched from behind the batting cage while players took swings Wednesday, sending high drives toward the Chicago skyline in the distance. The staff of instructors working with players included former Major Leaguers Reggie Smith, Jerry Manuel, Tom Gordon, Marquis Grissom, Jeffrey Hammonds, Mike Cameron, Lou Collier, Marvin Freeman, Luis Alicea, Dave Gallagher and John Cangelosi.

It was a labor of love for all involved.

"This is awesome," said Manuel, who managed the White Sox and Mets. "It's a tremendous effort from the Players Association and from Major League Baseball. We know what the issues are. We're trying to address those issues. It's always been something big on my heart as well.

"I love to see guys who we have considered as some of the greatest athletes in the world, like Michael Jordan, choose baseball, He played baseball after winning [basketball] championships here in Chicago. Bo Jackson, Deion Sanders, Dave Winfield [played baseball]. We're not getting LeBron [James] and Steph Curry yet, but we're trying to get back to getting that type athlete in the game."

Granderson, the Mets' center fielder who donated money to build UIC a stadium, played college basketball as a freshman before picking baseball as the sport where he'd make his mark. His legacy looms for 15 Chicago players at this event, as well as those who came from 15 other states.

Fresher is the impression made by California high schooler Hunter Greene being selected second overall by the Reds in last week's Draft. The two-way player participated in the Breakthrough Series and other joint MLB/MLBPA development series, playing alongside some of the players here this week.

"In Hunter Greene's case, we got to know a fantastic young man," said Gordon, who led the American League with 46 saves for Boston in 1998. "I got a chance to be around him a little bit. Every morning he'd come in and say, 'Coach, what you think?' He always had a question and also was very good at listening."

Boyd knows Greene well from times they spent together at the Urban Youth Academy in Compton, Calif., which opened in 2006. Boyd was 9 when he first went there to check it out.

"When football season was over, I used to go there every single day and hit and field," said Boyd, whose cousin is pitcher , a former first-round pick of the Rangers. "It's different from travel ball. In travel ball, they want to win. At the academy, they focus on your progression, getting better every day. That really helped."

Boyd was thrilled to see Greene drafted so high. Maybe he'll get to pitch to him -- or to hit off him -- one day in the Major Leagues. The possibilities burn bright for baseball's next generation.