CINCINNATI -- Finding opportunities in the game for people of color remains a large issue facing Major League Baseball. For the young people at the beginning of the journey, it can seem daunting with few personal examples of those who have succeeded.
The new Reds Elite Development Series aims to help solve some of those issues. On Martin Luther King Day on Monday, an event was scheduled to bring players and parents together with Black scouts and Black former players for a two-hour showcase and workout at the P&G MLB Reds Youth Academy. Unfortunately, it was postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Instead, the Reds Community Fund hosted a forum on Zoom for players and their families to discuss different pathways to the big leagues for the Black athlete.
“We’ve missed out on a whole generation in terms of connecting the Black audience to baseball, whether it was the fanbase, whether it was the young athletes.” said Charley Frank, executive director of the Reds Community Fund. “You know what? The truth of the matter is we’ve lost more than a generation now. This has been a challenge for many decades, especially when we see the level of Black participation in Major League Baseball being under 8% and the Black participation in Division 1 college baseball being well below 8%, as well as Division 1 softball.”
Former Reds center fielder Eric Davis, currently a member of the club’s baseball operations department, started having discussions with colleagues last year to figure out how to get young people of color back to participating in the game.
There are already large showcase opportunities like the Breakthrough Series that target players of color. There are other events like Perfect Game and the Dream Series that help open opportunities.
“[They are] kind of like focused on that great Black kid who can transcend anybody’s team. There’s not anything there that’s helping that kid improve or giving that kid hope that somewhere along the line, he can be a part of something special as far as baseball is concerned,” Davis said.
Members of the Reds, including Davis, thought they could improve on the format of other development series.
“It was, ‘Why don’t we put on our own and try to be transcendent in how we view our kids, how we teach our kids and what kind of information is out there for Black families to think realistically if their kids have a chance?’” Davis said. “What we started to do was put our minds together to see how we can best benefit the kids in the Cincinnati area ... and give them an idea to see what it’s like, to talk to the scouts, talk to the players and also have a conversation with their parents.
“Every Black parent -- whether it’s a single mother or if the family is together -- has this mindset that you have to spend thousands and thousands of dollars to even get your kid looked at to play. That was one of the reasons we decided to do our own thing.”
Monday’s Zoom session featured Davis, Reds national crosschecking scout Jerry Flowers, Reds pro scout Ben Jones, Giants scout Arnold Brathwaite and Nationals scout Eric Robinson. Frank moderated the discussion, which featured a question and answer session.
Among the topics addressed were: What are some pathways to MLB as a player other than attending Division 1 college? What are scouts looking for? How important is exposure to tournaments vs. playing in a local league? What kind of advice is there for parents and players as they look to reach higher levels of the game?
Jones wanted the event to give hope to Black kids who rarely -- if ever -- meet scouts and mentors of the same color.
“We can provide different and multiple options to create more streams of career-based paths for individuals like ourselves,” Jones said. “We all took different paths to where we are today, some playing and some coaching. We want to not just give back, but better educate these kids and parents just so they can help the next generation.”
Part of that education is showing that it’s possible to reach the big leagues even if that means not being a player on the field.
“It’s opportunities within baseball as far as scouting, player development, coaching, marketing,” Jones said. “Any avenue that’s available, we want to present that to families and kids. When you’re in a situation that these kids are in now, it’s just about playing. We all know as scouts and people that the road to the big leagues is very slim.”
When the pandemic is finally over, the Reds Elite Development Series aims to get players and scouts together on the field and in person.
“We’ve got great programs, great leadership and great people at the Reds Academy,” Frank said. “I think our challenge has always been, ‘How do we find more and more and more young people of color to prime the pump? How do we get them into the sport earlier? How do we expose them to all of the opportunities that exist within the sport?’”