Behind its expansive repertoire of initiatives, Major League Baseball has continued to develop grassroots talent -- the game's future on-field stars and their fans.
With showcases, tournaments and initiatives, MLB has -- alongside a variety of notable partners including USA Baseball and USA Softball -- comprehensively covered the country to instill the virtues of baseball and softball to youth everywhere.
From bucolic towns to bustling cities, baseball and softball are brought to underserved youth thanks to many within the game's community.
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA), casual participation in baseball increased by 22% in 2020. This was amid the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, which caused the vast majority of youth baseball and softball leagues to shut down for the year.
Baseball and softball development initiatives led by MLB are designed to improve access and foster growth of diversity within the youth and amateur levels of the sport. Many of these programs utilize the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., (the former “Historic Dodgertown”) as a hub for premier youth baseball and softball programming.
Since MLB's PLAY BALL initiative started in 2014, casual participation in baseball has increased by nearly 90%, and in four of the last five years, baseball and softball combined to be the most participated sport in the United States.
Let's take a look at some of the programs that are helping to pave the road for the sport’s future.
Diversity Development Camps
One aspect of this specifically focused effort to diversify the baseball and softball pipeline by developing and advancing high school age athletes from diverse backgrounds are the variety of developmental programs, including the Breakthrough Series, DREAM Series and Hank Aaron Invitational. These programs, which primarily feature Black high school student-athletes and are largely coached by Black former Major Leaguers, have seen enormous success over the last six years. In fact, 95% of all baseball development event participants who have graduated high school have played baseball at the college or professional levels. The events are completely cost-free to participants.
Players in the MLB and USA Baseball diversity pipeline, including the Breakthrough Series, DREAM Series and Elite Development Invitational may be offered additional development and instructional opportunities throughout the year. Affording participants touchpoints at different times during the season allows for consistent growth opportunities both in competitive and non-competitive settings, and aids the continued advancement of their life and baseball skills.
The Breakthrough Series, established in 2008, is a joint effort on behalf of USA Baseball and Major League Baseball. This unique program focuses on developing high school-age players on and off the field through the highest levels of coaching, mentorship and insight from baseball industry leaders. In recent years this initiative has been expanded to serve the softball and girls baseball community, featuring coaches consisting of softball legends (including Jennie Finch, Natasha Watley and Lauren Chamberlain) and Women’s National Team members from both sports.
The DREAM Series is a showcase event focused on the dynamics of pitching and catching for a diverse group of high school elite athletes -- predominantly Black athletes -- from across the country during the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend. The event, established in 2017, is operated by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball.
Hank Aaron Invitational
The 2021 Hank Aaron Invitational -- a joint effort between USA Baseball, MLB, the MLBPA through the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation -- took on a special meaning, as its Hall of Famer namesake passed away in January. If Aaron were still around, the legend would have been blown away by the breadth of talent that continues to play in the development event that bears his name. From newcomers to returnees, first-generation players to the relatives of big leaguers such as Lou Collier, Junior Spivey and Jon Duplantier, the stars of tomorrow who have converged at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla., shared one common trait: unbridled passion.
The Aaron Invitational helps even the playing field for many underserved youth, with everyone receiving prestigious on-field training sessions with former Major and Minor League players, coaches, managers and executives, as well as special guest presentations on advancing to the collegiate and professional levels of baseball. The event also features a showcase game opportunity where the top 44 players from the Vero Beach portion are selected to play at Truist Park.
Identification events are pro-style workouts designed to find players of diverse backgrounds -- particularly those living in inner cities and underserved areas, as well as girls baseball players -- to invite to MLB-led programming, including the RBI programs, Youth Academies and Baseball Developmental Events. The COVID-19 pandemic derailed some of the planned baseball development activities over the last couple of years, but a full slate of ID Tour events are scheduled to take place in 2022.
Part of this overall effort is MLB GRIT: Girls ID Tour, a talent showcase specifically for female baseball players with top performers invited to elite girls baseball development programs hosted by MLB and USA Baseball, including the Girls Baseball Breakthrough Series.
MLB's Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program boasts an impressive alumni lineup among its approximately two million players since its inception in 1989.
RBI is administered by Major League Baseball and designed to provide low-cost opportunities to play baseball and softball for young people from underserved and diverse communities while also encouraging academic achievement and teaching the value of teamwork, among other important life lessons.
Each RBI season culminates with the RBI World Series; the Atlanta Braves program (Junior Division) and Cincinnati Reds program (Senior Division) won crowns this past year. Over on the softball side, the Houston Astros program was the last standing for the third straight year in 2021.
MLB Youth Academy Network
MLB Youth Academies are “brick and mortar” facilities for low-cost/free baseball and softball development. Academies are situated all over the country, including in LA/Compton, NY/Bronx, Houston, Dallas, Kansas City, Cincinnati, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., New Orleans and Puerto Rico/Gurabo. Facilities also offer vocational programs focusing on areas such as broadcasting, sports law, umpiring and more.
Andre Dawson Classic
In celebration of Black History Month, the Andre Dawson Classic, a tournament launched in 2008 by MLB to highlight Historically Black Colleges & Universities (HBCUs) and their baseball programs, will return to New Orleans for the eighth time in 2022. Games featuring seven HBCU baseball programs and the University of New Orleans will be hosted at both the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy and Maestri Field at the University of New Orleans. Two games will have a special spotlight via a live game broadcast on MLB Network and a stream on MLB.com on Feb. 19. As a clear measure of evidence of the pipeline’s progress, 53 players among the eight teams are alumni of many of the diversity-focused programs led by MLB -- an increase of 112% from the last tournament in February 2020.
A variety of grassroots initiatives have been put into place to introduce and grow the game at the youngest levels.
In 2021, MLB continued outreach and efforts to build tangible connections with the Black community, specifically partnering with Black churches around the country via Drive Thru PLAY BALL events where children received equipment to play the game at home, in their neighborhoods and in any other non-traditional baseball setting.
Fun At Bat is a joint initiative between MLB and USA Baseball that provides a free “Bat & Ball” program in P.E. curriculum in public schools. Millions of kids have access to the program in the U.S., Mexico, the United Kingdom, Puerto Rico and Brazil.
Additional programs that are among the many initiatives making an impact on the youth baseball and softball community include the following: Trailblazer Series, Elite Development Invitational, Jennie Finch Classic, Commissioner’s Cup, States Play, Pitch, Hit & Run and Jr. Home Run Derby.