TEMPE, Ariz.—The Martin Luther King Jr. holiday weekend perennially marks the first opportunity for Phoenix-area baseball fans and scouts to get out of the house and back out to ballparks for their first taste of high school ball, with several major events taking place across the Valley over a four-day span.
Building on the success of last year's Breakthrough Series event, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball returned to Tempe Diablo Stadium for the Dream Series, a program designed to benefit minority high school players from around the country. The event was limited to pitchers and catchers, with bullpen sessions and fielding practice for the nearly 50 invited pitchers and defensive instruction and batting practice for 16 catchers. The agenda also included guest speakers each evening and mandatory study halls for the players.
Among the Dream Series instructors were former Mets manager Jerry Manuel, functioning as the team manager, field coordinator Reggie Waller, ex-big league pitchers Marvin Freeman, LaTroy Hawkins, Dave Stewart, Kenny Hill and Darren Oliver and catching instructors Bob Didier, Charles Johnson and Lenny Webster. Marquis Grissom and Homer Bush were on hand to provide hitting instruction.
The focus on pitchers and catchers at the Dream Series was intended to fill a need from the minority communities.
"Our culture, for the most part, has been disconnected from the game," Manuel said. "We are trying to do all we can to get it connected back. We feel that if we can get those primary positions of pitchers and catchers together, put an emphasis on that and give them exposure to some of the knowledge that's here, that hopefully by dangling that carrot of knowledge out there for them, No. 1, it will help them perform better in those duties, and No. 2, hopefully make them better men as well."
Manuel was already pleased with the attitudes that he saw from the participants, giving the instructors the task of keeping the kids focused on what they need to be doing while a part of the program.
"They've been awesome," Manuel said about the enthusiasm of the camp participants. "Our challenge is to rein them in . . . once you get out on this beautiful facility, get the smell of the grass, the leather, the baseball, you feel excited and with a lot of energy, you want to get out there and show people . . . it's difficult for us to rein them in because they want to show everybody what they can do and they're excited about it."
This year's event had more of a buzz due to the presence of Notre Dame High (Sherman Oaks, Calif.) righthander pitcher Hunter Greene, who is projected to be one of the top draft picks in 2017. Arriving in time for the second of the four days of the Dream Series, Greene drew a large crowd of onlookers for his first bullpen session on Saturday morning.
Greene is no stranger to MLB and USA Baseball events.
"This experience is amazing," Greene said. "I did the Elite Development Invitational a couple of years ago, and just the people that are here are so great. I always really focus on the off-the-field stuff . . . the baseball will take care of itself. Just the people that are here—the coaches that are here—they're great, they're so nice to us. They treat us well. They teach us so much about being just a good person, and obviously the skill level and the techniques. Just being a good, good young man is really important to me, and important for all the kids that are here."
With Greene being the marquee name at this event, it's understandable that the other players would be watching him closely through the weekend. He's aware of the extra attention that comes with his participation and looks to make the most of it for everyone involved.
"I try not to put myself on a pedestal," Greene said. "I'm here to connect with the players, just have a great time and show them the amount of hard work, dedication and passion it takes to be successful in this game. Just spreading that and having that impact on people, just bringing their best self on the field every time."
Greene's catcher for his first bullpen session was Olive Branch, Miss., native and Texas Tech recruit Cordell Dunn Jr. It wasn't the first time that Dunn worked with Greene, as they were together in 2014 on USA Baseball's 15U team that traveled to Mazatlan, Mexico, for the World Baseball Softball Confederation AA 15U World Cup. With the experience he's gained through the years catching pitchers with premium velocity, Dunn knew that working with Greene at this event would be no issue.
"He's a special kid, he can do some special things," Dunn said about Greene, "and we have a pretty good relationship outside of baseball."
This is not the first Breakthrough Series event for Dunn, having been involved in a prior showcase in Vero Beach, Fla., so the 6-foot, 190-pound catcher sees the value of his participation.
"It's a great opportunity to come out here with the guys," Dunn said. "You have Charles Johnson, Lenny Webster . . . You come out here and pick their brains a little bit. It's good for my game and it helps me down the road."
The large percentage of minority players at the Dream Series provides a different experience from most of the showcase events that Dunn attends.
"It's a totally different environment," Dunn said. "Most of the showcases I go to are predominantly white. This is really good for me to be around African-Americans and talk baseball with them."
Like Greene and Dunn, lefthander Marlin Willis, a Georgia State recruit from Stone Mountain, Ga., is another high school senior eligible for the upcoming draft, and has participated in the Tempe event both of the past two years.
With a projectable 6-foot-4, 196-pound frame and velocity already into the 90s, Willis' potential is obvious. But what isn't as visible from behind home plate is the fact that he's a real student of the game, and being around the Dream Series instructors was an extra opportunity for him to learn.
"(Here) you are in front of guys who played where you want to go," Willis said. “Growing up I always looked on YouTube and searched these guys, like Dave Stewart and all these guys who played in the big leagues. I tried to see what they have done, and now for them to be right in front of my face and to be able to ask them questions and pick their brains . . . It's a blessing."
Quite a few other pitchers stood out during their bullpen sessions at the Angels back-field bullpen. Observers were impressed with 2018 Woodstock, Ga., product Chris Williams, a lefthander throwing a heavy ball with a lot of life on all of his pitches. The Florida International commit, one of two pitchers by the same name at the event, is relatively new to pitching and is still very much an intriguing work in progress. Another interesting arm from the 2018 class is Nashville-area righthander Elijah Pleasants, showing a loose arm and good body.
2020 lefthander Armari Paula (Jersey City, New Jersey), one of the youngest pitchers participating in the Dream Series, drew a significant amount of mentions from both instructors and scouts during his bullpen session. With a projectable 6-foot-2, 155-pound frame and a loose arm, Paula will be an interesting Northeast prospect to follow as he begins his high school career. He is already committed to Virginia.