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Young talent on display at Breakthrough Series

Student-athletes hone skills with former pros at Pirate City event
Special to MLB.com

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Shortstop Isaac Nunez was out on one of the Pirate City practice fields at 7 a.m. ET Thursday, eager to try out some of the fielding techniques he learned on the first day of the Breakthrough Series hosted by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball.

Nunez, who recently relocated from Manhattan to Altamonte Springs said that he wanted to take advantage of every minute he was able to be around former Major League players like Marquis Grissom, Tom "Flash" Gordon and Homer Bush and soak in their knowledge.

BRADENTON, Fla. -- Shortstop Isaac Nunez was out on one of the Pirate City practice fields at 7 a.m. ET Thursday, eager to try out some of the fielding techniques he learned on the first day of the Breakthrough Series hosted by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball.

Nunez, who recently relocated from Manhattan to Altamonte Springs said that he wanted to take advantage of every minute he was able to be around former Major League players like Marquis Grissom, Tom "Flash" Gordon and Homer Bush and soak in their knowledge.

"We've been working on the little things," Nunez said. "Being consistent. We were working hard this morning. I chose to play this game and pursue this game, and now I am working with guys who were the best in their day. It's amazing."

Later Thursday, Najee Rhodes, an outfield prospect from Sarasota, participated in one of the afternoon games and ripped a single to the opposite field using a different variation of his swing, taught to him by Bush.

"The coaches saw my power, and they know I can hit home runs so they worked with me on simplifying my swing," Rhodes said. "They just wanted me to use my hands more to take the ball the other way. I put a lot of my body into my swing, and they taught me not to use so much of my body and trust my hands to take the ball to right-center field."

Video: Legends mentor young talent in Breakthrough Series

Rhodes said he noticed a difference immediately in the way he got around on the ball.

"One of the first times I tried the swing Wednesday I hit a home run off the curveball pitching machine," Rhodes added. "I felt the changes right away."

Nunez and Rhodes are two of the 60 high school student-athletes participating in the Breakthrough Series in Bradenton from Wednesday to Friday. The student-athletes, from graduating classes in 2018 and 2019, come from 11 different states to take part in this event.

The Breakthrough Series is a joint effort between MLB and USA Baseball to promote baseball as a viable collegiate and professional option for youth from minority backgrounds. A Breakthrough Series event was also being held in Compton, Calif., and occurred recently in Chicago

Pirate City has hosted an event for the fourth consecutive season, and Reggie Waller, a former MLB scout and front-office executive, says that the facility in Bradenton gives the participants a chance to see how players currently with a professional organization conduct themselves and go about their work to improve.

"They get to see the Pirates' rookie-ball players, and they get to stay at a facility that they could someday stay in so they can get a glimpse of what they could be," Waller said. "If they look in the mirror and take a little self-analysis and say, 'OK, I want to play over there, what do I have to do to get there?' And I think this place, out of all of the ones we do, gives them that best glimpse."

Rhodes, a 2018 graduate who will be heading to San Jacinto (Texas) College, lives less than 20 minutes away from Pirate City but said that his experience has been surreal.

"I can't even believe I'm here still, it hasn't hit me yet," Rhodes said. "Seeing these Major League guys walking around, telling us stuff, smiling, having a good time. It's awesome."

Nunez, a 2019 graduate who has earned a scholarship to the University of Florida, believes the event is a great showcase of competition and an opportunity to put himself against some other promising prospects around the region.

"The fact that I get to play out here with the top players in my class, big names like Nasim Nunez and Myles Austin are out here and the competition is head to head," Isaac Nunez said. "We're working out. We're seeing who the best defensive player is. It's a competitive environment, but it's also fun and supportive."

As the afternoon games were going on, scouts from MLB and college programs around the nation were keeping a close eye on the action and taking notes. For some of the players it was their first opportunity to perform in front of scouts.

Waller said that the energy around the event was infectious and as the players measure themselves against each other their attention to detail and work ethic will continue to improve.

"The first thing is always tools -- the ability to hit, hit for power, field, throw and run, those are the basic things," Waller said. "But you go much beyond that. It's the intangibles that are going to separate these guys. They have to understand that having talent is not enough. You've got to refine it and have a working knowledge of the game and understand the sacrifices it will take."

Bush played in the Major Leagues for seven years and won a World Series with the New York Yankees in 1998. He is currently the director of youth baseball for the Texas Rangers and has had a big part in the growth of the Breakthrough Series as an instructor and hitting coach. Bush also connects with the players on a personal level as he remembers getting his opportunity to play baseball after a standout career as a high-school athlete in East Saint Louis, Ill.

"When I do camps like this I want the players to leave here with confidence," Bush said. "The cards are stacked against them no doubt, but we want them to believe in their abilities and that they can compete with the international players and the college players here in the U.S. Identify your wow factor and continue to get better in all the other phases of the game."

Since the Breakthrough Series was established in 2008 there have been more than 160 participants selected in the MLB Draft, including 16 in the 2017 Draft. Many players have also earned scholarships to some of the nation's top programs like LSU, Arizona State, Miami, North Carolina and Vanderbilt.

Bush says he sees a growing trend in youth athletes from diverse backgrounds playing baseball and he credits MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred for his commitment to bringing the game back to those communities.

"When I read Commissioner Manfred's mission statement on his first day in office, he said he was going to give these young men the resources they need to just get in the act of playing the game again, and hopefully they will enjoy the game and take it to the next level," Bush said. "The Commissioner has invested a ton of financial resources as well. That's the first thing I look at. I know he's fully committed to this."

Corey Long is a contributor to MLB.com based in St. Petersburg.