Youth pitchers, catchers live the 'Dream'

MLB program unites diverse group of prospects, big league mentors

January 13th, 2018

TEMPE, Ariz. -- The familiar sound of fastballs popping into catchers mitts provided the soundtrack to the workout on the back field at Tempe Diablo Stadium.

One by one, the teenagers threw the pitch in the bullpen and then looked back at their big league mentors for advice. Nearby, the prospects' parents watched through a chain-link fence. Scouts from several teams, including the Giants, Nationals and Rangers, leaned on a padded wall and wrote in notebooks.

"Good one, good one. That's a nice pitch," said former Major League pitcher Tom "Flash" Gordon. "Do you see what you did there? Let's repeat it."

Gordon's work with the Dream Series, just like his job on the mound years ago, is a labor of love.

"I was one of those kids and I was one of those success stories," Gordon said. "I feel like these kids need to know that I am exactly like that, and no different from them in any way. I want them to stay humble. I want them to stay hungry. I want them to have very good character. I think these camps show that because we bring good coaches in to illustrate that."

The Dream Series, an initiative from Major League Baseball and USA Baseball, features a diverse group of some of the nation's top high school pitching and catching prospects. The program began Thursday night with a welcome dinner and continues with workouts through Monday at the Spring Training home of the Angels.

The series, which is connected to Martin Luther King Jr. Day, features on-hand coaching from former players like 20-year big league veterans Gordon, LaTroy Hawkins and Darren Oliver, along with Pat Mahomes, Ken Hill and others. The program also includes presentations on baseball career opportunities at the professional and collegiate levels, along with athletic assessments through the Prospect Development Pipeline Premier Events.

The initiative is also designed to help address the small number of African-American players in baseball. There were only 7.1 percent of African-Americans on Opening Day rosters, a number that included 13 pitchers and no catchers, according to a report by USA Today.

"They saw a void, and LaTroy, Darren and Flash said, 'We want to be a part of this. We see what's happening at the Major League level and we want to be a part of giving back,'" said Tony Reagins, MLB's senior vice president of youth programs. "When you have those type of guys, with what they've done in the game at a high level for a long time and want to be a part of something, it made a whole lot of sense."

The Dream Series program began Friday with morning drills and timed runs. Half of the pitchers threw to catchers in front of the coaching staff. The second half of the pitchers threw Saturday. Hitting in the batting cages and on the main field at Tempe Diablo Stadium is part of the daily routine at the Dream Series.

"Baseball gave me everything that I have, everything, and I am not just talking about money," Hawkins said. "Baseball taught me how to be the person that I am and taught me how to treat people and respect others and respect the game. To be able to give that back to the youth, especially the kids who look like me, means a lot."

Oliver, like Hawkins, Hill and Gordon, patrolled the area behind the pitching rubber and shared his observations with the teens. One pitcher's leg kick during his delivery had to be tweaked. Another pitcher was tipping his pitches because of the way he positioned his glove before he started his windup.

One teen's fastball had an usually sharp break and he struggled to keep the pitch in the strike zone. Oliver asked for the ball and immediately solved the problem.

"A scuffed baseball is hard to control, and the fastball rarely goes where you want it to go," Oliver reminded the teen. "Ever see a pitcher bounce a ball and the catcher gets a new ball? That's why. Here's a new ball. Now go get 'em."

The teen's next pitch was a perfect strike.

"My thing, I wouldn't just say in sports, but in life, is to be humble," Oliver said. "I don't care how good you think you are and if you are in high school or college or pro. Be humble. People are going to pump you up on how good you are, but how many people around you are going to say to be humble? That's what all of us want these players to think about."