'It’s a brotherhood': For young players, ACE's impact goes beyond baseball

February 7th, 2024

CHICAGO -- The words “family” and “home” were invoked quite frequently by the 16 players taking part in the White Sox's Amateur City Elite signing celebration on Tuesday night in the home clubhouse at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Baseball was the reason these players and their families gathered with their coaches and members of Chicago's front office for the annual signing event, one where they put pen to paper to continue their baseball journeys at the collegiate level. But as evidenced by 16 brief speeches throughout the night, ACE, since its inception in 2007, has been more than a baseball developmental program -- it's been system for life success.

“It’s a brotherhood,” said ACE member Justyn Hart, who will play at the University of Missouri. “I started at 12 or 13, and over the years, I can finally say they are a family to me. It’s not just about baseball. It’s about building bonds, building relationships with my teammates and coaches. They are trying to sculpt me into a man.”

“These relationships they created here, not only with teammates but also with staff, will last forever,” White Sox assistant general manager Josh Barfield said. “The lessons they’ve learned will take them a long way. That’s what is so cool about this program. It’s not only stressing to become good baseball players. It’s becoming good men and good students and good sons. That’s why I’m so honored to be part of this.”

Barfield was the guest speaker Tuesday, doing a question and answer session in front of the group. He also met with the players prior to the official signing program for a private talk.

After joining the White Sox as part of general manager Chris Getz’s new staff, Barfield talked about getting involved with ACE. As Barfield has learned about the program firsthand, he’s been even more impressed with what the White Sox have put together and how the organization has fine-tuned ACE into one of baseball’s truly special programs.

“I told them I want to be involved anyway I can,” Barfield said. “Getting to be here tonight for this, for signing day and then seeing the look on these kids’ faces, with their hats, out their taking pictures, to see the families like this, it’s really special.”

With 16 signings in 2024, more than 280 players have earned collegiate scholarships through the Amateur City Elite program.

The numbers reinforce Barfield’s point.

With Tuesday's signings, more than 280 players have earned collegiate scholarships through the program. There have been more than 130 participants who have competed at the Division I level; more than 80 participants who have attended HBCUs; and, most importantly, more than 90 who have earned college degrees with more than 110 currently enrolled in college.

“Just like you’ve heard all night, it’s about family and opportunity,” said Darius Day, who played and coached with ACE. “Just trying to level the playing field through the game of baseball. It’s more than just baseball. It’s mentorship. It’s opportunity. Iron sharpens iron.”

ACE helped Day get selected by the Rangers in the 23rd round of the 2014 MLB Draft and play four years in their system. Day, who will begin his first season as High-A Winston-Salem's bench coach in 2024, is one of 29 ACE participants drafted by 15 Major League organizations. The program brought him back to the White Sox in this coaching capacity, just as it did with Blake Hickman, who is currently Single-A Kannapolis' pitching coach.

Corey Ray, the first ACE alum to reach the Majors when he debuted with the Brewers in April 2021, is now the bench coach for the Cubs' Single-A Myrtle Beach affiliate. Many young players sitting in the White Sox clubhouse Tuesday would love to follow Ray’s path to the big leagues.

“I’m already looking forward to it,” Hart said. “I have it set in my head I’m going to be here one day. So, now I have to keep my head down and keep working.”

Anything seems possible with ACE’s family guidance and assistance.

“A lot of teams have RBI programs but this is above and beyond that. This is the standard, in my opinion,” Barfield said. “I didn’t know anything about it before I came over here, what they did, how many kids they have sent to college, guys who have played professionally. It’s an incredible program.”