TEMPE, Ariz. -- In a lot of places and showcases Zion Rose attends, he stands out for a host of reasons. He’s one of the best high school catchers in the Draft Class of 2023, after all, with plus athleticism on both sides of the ball.
But he’s very aware that he’s still a rarity as a young Black catcher. He’s surveyed Major League rosters and recognized the lack of players behind the plate who look like him. He knows the history extremely well, very familiar with Charles Johnson, the last Black player to be drafted as a catcher to spend considerable time in the big leagues, and that it was way back in 1992 (the Guardians’ Bo Naylor, a 2018 first-round pick, made it up to Cleveland for eight at-bats in 2022. All-Star Russell Martin was a 2002 draftee, but was selected as an infielder and didn’t move behind the plate until 2003).
It’s one of the major reasons why Major League Baseball and USA Baseball have run the DREAM Series since 2017 and why there’s a focus on pitching and catching as positions with a lack of Black players in all levels of the sport. Rose, who has been attending this event since his freshman year of high school and has been a regular presence at events like the Breakthrough Series and Hank Aaron Invitational, has taken full advantage of the Major League-level coaching and the validation that he’s exactly where he’s supposed to be.
“I don't even think that it's not that we're attracted to the positions,” said Rose, who is committed to Louisville for college. “I think we're kind of steered away from the positions throughout the years. We have a lot of people slowly budging us, ‘Move to the outfield or move here.’
“I'm definitely happy that they're here [at the DREAM Series]. And they always tell us, no matter where I go, ‘Stay behind the plate. Stay behind the plate. Trust. Stay behind the plate.’ So I'm happy they're the ones that keep us going at these positions. If it wasn't for them, shoot … I might have been in the outfield.”
Scouts who have watched Rose, particularly over the course of this past summer’s showcase circuit as he got more time on a national stage heading into his senior year, have been impressed by what he can do in all facets of the game. One national scout recognized his ability to move around the diamond and impact the game in different ways.
“I like the swing,” the scout said. “He has bat speed, uses the whole field and he has pop. He can run and play multiple positions. I wouldn’t bet against him to catch. I think he has something to prove.”
For his part, Rose doesn’t discount his ability to play other spots. But he’s clear with anyone who asks that does not take away from his belief he can and will stick behind the plate.
“People ask me questions, ‘Do you play outfield?’” Rose said. “I say, ‘No, I catch. I’m a catcher.’ But also, I don’t take away from the ability that I can play the outfield. I can still do that. But I’m a catcher.”
To continue to prove that, Rose moved from Chicago to Florida to play for IMG Academy, a switch that will afford him the ability to get more instruction, play against better competition and get seen by more scouts. And he’s doing it with lefty Cameron Johnson, who moved from Maryland to IMG this year for the same reason, and who is also a DREAM Series participant.
Rose looks back at the kid he was when he first started attending these events and barely recognizes him. He knew he loved catching -- partially because after giving up football as he entered high school, he feels the position comes the closest to the contact he loved on the gridiron -- but between his lack of experience and the voices of others telling him to play center field, doubt certainly entered his mind. But each time he returned here or at other events, he received another dose of belief in what he was capable of doing.
“My answer is going to relate back to why this event is so important,” Rose said. “It's about how much self- doubt I had because of some of my weaknesses back there and then people telling me where to go because of my speed. And I just think back to the nervousness I'd have sometimes. Because of these events, coming here, now I get to work on what my weaknesses are and I get a new level of confidence. Then I see what my weaknesses are, come back to next camp, Hank Aaron, and get to work on those weaknesses, get to come to DREAM Series, get to work on those weaknesses.
“Now that I'm at this point, my senior year, I have a high level of confidence because I didn't quit. There have been many times where I was like, ‘Man, should I stop playing catcher? I’m nervous. I don't know what to do.’ And they kept instilling that: ‘You got this. Trust you're going to be a big league catcher.”
Perhaps the landscape is changing ever so slowly. Harry Ford was the Mariners’ first-round pick in 2021 and is their top prospect. Ian Moller went in the fourth round in that same Draft to the Rangers. Both are Dream Series alumni who are Black athletic backstops being given every chance to show they don’t need to change positions. Moller looks around at his fellow high school catchers at this event, who he feels are just as good as he is but need more exposure, and wants to be a part of the change, just like Reds right-hander and DREAM Series alum Hunter Greene did at this year’s event.
“It’s super important because that's just going to bring in more of us to the game,” Rose said about being a role model for future young catchers. “I thank Hunter Greene because he just showed me how smooth he was and how he was with us, how he gave back to us. Honestly, that's been my dream since the beginning of high school. I want to make it to the bigs, be an example and give back.”