NEW YORK -- CC Sabathia remembers MLB's Black legends whom he watched during his childhood, rattling off names like Lee Smith and Dave Stewart. Watching those icons was instrumental in fostering Sabathia’s interest in baseball, and the importance of that representation sticks with him to this day.
A motivation to provide that feeling to the next generation of African-American baseball players was an impetus for the two-part docuseries “New Wave: Baseball’s Next Generation.” MLB partnered with production company Uninterrupted to follow the journeys of prospects Termarr Johnson, Jayson Jones, RJ Austin and Justin Crawford as they prepared for the 2022 MLB Draft Combine and the MLB Draft, and decided between college or signing a pro contract.
Executive produced by Sabathia, Amber Sabathia, NBA star LeBron James, the Springhill Company CEO Maverick Carter and MLB VP Nick Trotta, the series aims to feature not only the players' talent on the field, but their personalities and sensitivity off the field.
On Monday -- five days before Jackie Robinson Day across MLB -- Sabathia, Commissioner Rob Manfred, SpringHill Company president Devin Johnson and Sonya Pankey, the first grandchild of Rachel and Jackie Robinson, convened at the Jackie Robinson Museum in New York to discuss the impact of “New Wave.”
“It actually started with Amber,” Sabathia said, crediting his wife as the driving force behind the series. “Her vision, seeing these kids that we’ve known over the years and wanting to document their story. It was an understanding that this group of '22s, them being African-American kids that aren’t just good baseball players, but the human beings they are. … We wanted to tell their stories.”
The stories of Johnson, Jones, Austin and Crawford had a common throughline as each highly touted prospect aspired to get to the next level. But their experiences were hardly monolithic. Johnson was drafted No. 4 overall in '22, and Crawford, the son of former big leaguer Carl Crawford, was selected No. 17. Austin took himself out of the Draft to play at Vanderbilt. Jones experienced the disappointment of going undrafted and decided to head to the University of Arkansas to play.
Even if their distinctly unique on-field exploits provided plenty of drama and intrigue, the panel members made it clear that the humans behind those abilities are the true stars of the documentary.
“It’s not just about them as athletes, it’s their entire being. … They’re not just human-interest stories, they’re interesting humans,” Johnson said. “To see these four kids that really knew each other -- they were friends, they had a bond -- really popped off the screen for me.
“Representation matters. … I have a 10-year-old at home, and seeing these kids and their experiences matters. These kids coming back to the community. I live in a community where [Reds pitcher] Hunter Greene is from and he comes back all the time to do camps and embrace the kids -- all that stuff matters in terms of helping this next wave of folks coming up.”
MLB has been purposeful in attempting to address the dwindling number of African-American players throughout the Minors and Majors. Three of the four subjects of “New Wave” (Johnson, Crawford and Austin), are alumni of MLB’s Breakthrough Series, one of the core developmental programs in the league’s diversity pipeline.
In a similar vein to a young CC watching Lee Smith close out games, there’s a prevailing hope that Black youth baseball players can watch these prospects' journeys in an intimate light, providing a belief that they too can make it to the next level.
“And I think that when you see that these four young men are so appealing in terms of their player and personal parts, you think, ‘This is something I’d like to be involved in,’” Manfred said. “The more that young, African-American kids see people that look like them, that they want to emulate -- the better it is for our sport.”
Pankey, one of the directors of the Jackie Robinson Foundation, found herself thinking of her grandfather’s legacy while watching the documentary. It’d be hard not to -- Austin wears No. 42 at Vanderbilt and Johnson wore the number throughout high school -- Robinson’s presence is felt each time one of the four young men appeared on the screen. She believes that they’re equipped for the future, and hopes they remember the hard work and sacrifice her grandfather underwent as they proceed forward.
“It was so emotional watching these kids in their journey,” Pankey said. “Because there was an experience that they had that my grandfather did not. Continuing this message of legacy, and what their legacy will become. ... Watching this documentary gives you so much hope.”
The panel discussion will be available to watch in full on MLB.com on Jackie Robinson Day, Saturday, at 10:30 a.m. ET.