JUPITER, Fla.—Mentoring Viable Prospects was born as an organization in 2002 out of a desire to counteract the narrative of declining interest of African-Americans in baseball by showcasing African-American players and helping them navigate the academic and college recruiting process.
MVP has helped more than 300 players earn college scholarships since its founding and held its 15th annual tournament in Atlanta this summer. From that tournament, which brought together six teams made up of minority players from Atlanta, California, Florida, North Carolina, Texas and Virginia, an all-star team was selected to play in Perfect Game’s World Wood Bat Association World Championship. This is MVP's second year bringing a team to Jupiter for the massive showcase event.
When Greg Goodwin, the longtime coach at Redan High, outside Atlanta, helped found MVP, playing in tournaments like the WWBA was not his intention. But when Melvin Upton Sr., whose sons Melvin Upton Jr. and Justin Upton both played in Jupiter and other high-profile showcases, joined the organization eight years ago, he thought MVP could showcase its players on the highest level.
"When Mr. Upton joined us eight years ago, he said we can get bigger and better than this," Goodwin said. "His goal was to get to Perfect Game and showcase our kids even more than we do at the tournament."
Upton Sr. was able to work with Perfect Game president Jerry Ford, who he got to know when his sons were in high school, to secure a spot for MVP in Jupiter. MVP won its first two games in last year's event before running short on pitching and losing its final two games. Goodwin and Upton Sr., who both coach the team, picked a slightly larger roster this year to avoid a similar situation.
MVP opened the tournament this year with a 5-3 loss to the Dirtbags, last year's champions. Still, MVP believes this year's team is better than last year's.
"(Last year) was eye opening for the kids and got us more excited about bringing the team in this year," Upton Sr. said. "It gave us more time to prepare which made it better. We've got a whole lot better team this year."
Orlando Adams, one of three players back for a second year in Jupiter, agreed with his coaches' assessment. He said after getting a game under their belts, they would be ready for the rest of the tournament.
"This year I feel like we've got a better team," said Adams, who is committed to Kentucky. "More hitters are going to be aggressive in the game."
This year, the team also has a new coach in the dugout. Melvin Upton Jr. has joined his father and Goodwin in coaching the team in Jupiter. He and Justin Upton, as well as some other big league players and MLB, helped contribute financially to help the team be able to participate in the event.
"When my dad brought it up to me, I was 100 percent behind it and my brother was too," Upton Jr. said. "Even some of the African-American guys around baseball, I told them my dad was putting together this team and they were all aboard and happy to help. Major League Baseball came and found me in spring training and was happy to help. It's a big deal and I know it means a lot to my dad, especially having two kids come through (the WWBA). Being able to get this opportunity means a lot to the kids and that's all that matters to me."
Upton Sr. asked his son to come to the tournament so that he could serve as a role model for the players. Having a big leaguer in the dugout also has the added benefit of helping get some of the coaches' instruction get through to the players.
"The kids love him," Upton Sr. said. "I'm on them all the time, but they listen to him. I can say something and he says the same thing I said and they go, 'Oh, yeah.'"
Adams said Upton Jr. is a big help to the team.
"He has a lot of baseball knowledge," Adams said. "He can tell you where to be at all times, any position, any situation – he can tell you what to do."
While the Uptons were not a part of the MVP program as players, other big leaguers such as Keon Broxton and Jason Heyward came through the program. This year's team may have some future big leaguers of its own, as Adams is one of eight players committed to Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 12 Conference or Southeastern Conference schools. And last year, after playing with MVP in Jupiter, Tahnaj Thomas, a native of the Bahamas, was signed by the Indians and went on to make a good first impression this summer in Rookie ball.
Upton Jr. said he and other African-American players in MLB often talk about ways they can increase the number of African-Americans playing baseball and reaching the big leagues. MVP is certainly doing its part and Upton Jr. is hopeful that eventually African-American representation in the game will bounce back.
"It's tough," Upton Jr. said. "You don't see a lot of baseball fields in inner cities. You don't see many African American baseball player in the commercial and things like that. It kind of got better and it kind of regressed a bit, but I think it's at the forefront of enough guys' minds that we can maybe try and even out the playing field in the future."