'A dream come true': Legends impart lessons at Hank Aaron Invitational

July 28th, 2022

As Luther Ellis III ranged into the hole at shortstop, there was only one way he could make the play.

After fielding the ball, Ellis did his best rendition of the Derek Jeter jump-throw and managed to get the runner out at first base by a half-step.

“I was just hoping I can get there,” he said. “When I first got my glove down there, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I actually got it in my glove.’ After that, my body took over. I didn’t think, I saw the first baseman, threw it as hard as I could and as high as I could and made sure I got it there.”

Ellis, who is committed to the University of South Carolina, is one of over 100 amateur baseball players participating in the Hank Aaron Invitational at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla.

At HAI, athletes interact with coaches who have over 100 combined years of MLB experience, including Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Ken Griffey Jr.

For Ellis, the opportunity to interact with Winfield is one he’ll never forget.

“It’s a dream come true,” he said. “I always imagine being with Dave Winfield and being coached under him -- it’s always been my dream.”

One of the coaches Ellis interacted with the most is Dave Gallagher, a former outfielder who played nine years in the big leagues for seven teams. Thus far, Gallagher has been very impressed by Ellis’ leadership on and off the field. Given Ellis’ performance so far at HAI, Gallagher hopes to help him improve on things that may go unnoticed by a younger ballplayer.

“It’s really just how to handle himself as a player,” Gallagher said. “Sometimes when we’re talking to kids, you’re teaching some kids basics. With him it’s different. We all have the experience of playing at the highest level and learning from other people. So when I see a player that’s his kind of talent, you look for little nuances of the game.”

Sam Parker, in his fourth year at HAI, has primarily played first base. Being around the coaching staff has meant everything to him because it's instruction he wouldn’t be able to get anywhere else.

“It means the world -- especially going back and watching their highlights,” Parker said. “I used to watch all of these guys on TV and YouTube. Now, to be able to be face-to-face and let them coach me and teach me about the game and stuff that I don’t know is amazing.”

Parker has had the chance to work closely with Brian Hunter, who played nine years in the Majors. Parker hopes to improve his defense at first base, and Hunter has helped him with picking throws and his movement at the position.

Hunter saw Parker at HAI in 2021 and has noticed the physical improvements he has made since then. But even with those improvements, the mental aspect of Parker’s game was what caught Hunter’s attention.

“What has impressed me is his makeup,” Hunter said. “It seemed like he came with a brand new mind. His mind is very far ahead right now. We did some talking today and yesterday about some pitches, and he’s right on par with pretty much almost being a big-time hitter right now.”

Kyle Johnson hopes to one day follow the path of two-way superstar Shohei Ohtani. Johnson also noted the impact of being around coaches who have a bevy of MLB experience.

“Learning from these coaches is amazing,” Johnson said. “You’ve just got to pick little things with what they say. Just got to use them as a resource and when you have questions, you need to ask them.”

Johnson turned in an impressive outing on the mound, retiring the side in order. His coach, former second baseman Jemile Weeks, said Johnson’s fastball topped out at 93 mph. While impressed with that velocity, Weeks pointed to Johnson’s ability to locate his other pitches, too.

“He was electric,” Weeks said. “He was using his curveball when he wanted to if the catcher called it. He was locating it inside and outside. He also was using the changeup as well, painting that low and away in the right counts at the right time.”

While the coaching is something that has stood out to Ellis, he also noted the impact HAI has had on him and his teammates.

“I just love the family environment and the brotherhood this event has brought to me and brought to all of these kids around here,” Ellis said.