Players Alliance connects with kids at clinic

July 13th, 2021

DENVER -- When you talk about a field of dreams in Denver, the conversation starts at Sonny Lawson Park.

It was the first field in Denver to host the Negro Leagues, in the middle of the historic Five Points neighborhood. It was the first Denver field named after an African American. And if you watched or took part in The Players Alliance clinic on All-Star Monday, it’s easy to imagine it as the place where a future Cy Young Award winner first learned the grip for a four-seam fastball from the legendary CC Sabathia.

The Players Alliance was formed in 2020 by approximately 150 Black players, past and present, but it has grown to attract players of all races through its mission to “create an inclusive culture, where differences are leveraged to elevate racial equality and provide greater opportunities for the Black community, both in our game and the places we live in, play in and care about most.”

“The Alliance was really a spontaneous movement,” Commissioner Rob Manfred said while watching the clinic. “Curtis Granderson, Edwin Jackson and CC felt that there was a need for a voice for the players to engage with. They did a great job organizing players and former players, and it reflects what we've seen from baseball recently.”

The program has made an incredible impact since it was founded, launching in the wake of George Floyd’s murder when the players stood up and responded to an urgent call for social justice.

“It's played out a lot better than expected,” Sabathia said. “You didn't know what to envision, how to start this thing 18 months ago. But the player participation that we've gotten has been amazing. To see what we've been able to do in such a short amount of time gives me hope for the future for us.”

Sabathia noted that he felt called to philanthropy by seeing, as a child, people who looked like him -- Dave Stewart for one -- succeed on the field and then come into the community to Sabathia’s Boys and Girls Club to share that success and inspire hope.

“I’m so blessed to be able to show up in neighborhoods, and not just throw money at stuff,” Sabathia said.

Later in the day, Manfred announced MLB’s commitment of up to $150 million to The Players Alliance.

“Our goals are aligned,” Manfred said regarding his comment in April that MLB needs to use its platform to demonstrate its values. “The Players Alliance wants to deliver the game to every kid, particularly kids in underserved areas. But it's also important in terms of the relationship with our players, current and former, that we work together.”

Manfred was quick to point out a difference between this program and similar baseball initiatives.

“The key -- it’s always the key in baseball -- it's about the players,” Manfred said. “The fact that this is player-driven, that it's former players out here with the kids, changes the nature of the undertaking.”

It’s hard to imagine a more intensive 90-minute clinic, with countless former players giving hands-on instruction. Sabathia persistently approached every kid in the pitching drill, placing their fingers along the seams to help them add velocity to their fastballs. He was their catcher, sitting on an upside-down bucket, and he clocked their pitches with a radar gun -- at least two kids broke the 90 mph.

Chris Young taught kids a shuffle drill to improve their footwork. Derrek Lee and Harold Reynolds teamed up to coach kids on fielding grounders, with Reynolds enthusiastically pointing out pre-teens who were “diamonds in the rough” and wouldn’t get the exposure and assistance they need without a program like this.

The dedication to the craft was what you’d expect from players of this caliber who are trying to make a significant difference in the trajectory of the kids’ lives on the field. But the commitment to community stood equally tall.

“People forget, athletes are human beings,” Lee said, while the kids hustled from one skills area to another. “Yes, we're athletes, but we're human beings first, right? Same things that matter to you matters to us. We have families and things affect them, so things matter to us. Why should we not be able to speak up? I think it's great to take a stance.”

That’s baseball’s greatness -- when taking a stance can so perfectly align with teaching a 10-year-old a better stance at the plate.