Breakthrough Series Provides Opportunity

Inner-city players get a chance to be seen

The number of black baseball players in the major leagues has been on a steady decline for years, but through urban youth initiatives mandated by Major League Baseball commissioner Bud Selig, the numbers could hopefully begin to start trending the other direction.

But change won't come overnight.

"We lament the fact that the numbers of African-Americans on the field has dropped so much," said Jimmie Lee Solomon, Major League Baseball's executive vice president of baseball operations. "And we say, 'Well, how do you fix that?' Well, it took 30 years for us to get from 28 percent down to 9 percent, it took a long time. So, if it took that long to get down to that low level, it's going to take a while to turn around and get it back up. You can't just immediately throw a baseball out there and say, 'All right, give me these great athletes. Get them out there and play.' It's a game of skills, so it will take time to go back and retrain the community to embrace the game and understand the game."

Major League Baseball has been trying to spark the involvement of more black players through their Urban Youth Academies, the first of which started in Compton, Calif. in 2006. This April, the second academy opened in Houston, and Solomon said there are many irons in the fire for upcoming academies. Within the next couple years, Urban Youth Academies could open in Philadelphia, Hialeah, Fla., New Orleans, Washington D.C., Cincinnati and Puerto Rico.

The ultimate goal, is to eventually have an academy in every major city in the country.

In addition to providing free baseball instruction for players, the Urban Youth Academies also offer clinics and courses for kids interested in umpiring, coaching and grounds keeping.

Teaching players about the game is crucial for reestablishing baseball as a viable option for inner-city kids, Solomon said. Even if the players aren't good enough to play in college or professionally, understanding the game will help them if they choose to pursue coaching or even just passing the love of the game on to their own eventual children.

"One of the biggest problems in urban America, is that we have lost a generation because, usually when you think about baseball, you remember your dad or a male role model teaching you the game and throwing the ball with you," Solomon said. "Well, where's that male role model in the black family in urban America? He's not there. So what happens is the kid comes out, he doesn't know the finer points of the game and he experiences failure, so he goes to some other sport or some other activity."

More Than The Game

Baseball is just the hook for establishing that goal. The real foundation of a growing base of blacks involved with baseball is to get more players involved with the Urban Youth Academies graduating from high school and enrolled in college.

As the academies move forward, there is more emphasis being put on the players' education. Using baseball as a hook, players will have opportunities for tutoring in various subjects, help setting their class schedule and guidance when going through the process of applying to colleges.

"The rest of this is more important than getting guys to the big leagues," said Darrell Miller, director of the Urban Youth Academy. "Getting kids to graduate from high school is our number one goal. That's more important to me than getting 20 guys to the big leagues, to be honest with you.

"I'm very excited for the day when we have our first player that makes the big leauges. Maybe it will be Anthony Gose, who was in our facility from day one, maybe it will be Aaron Hicks, or maybe it will be someone else. But the thing I'll be most proud of—and probably I'll never see or hear—is the thousands of kids that got to college, because they'll make an impact forever. They'll be better dads, they'll be better employees, they'll be contributors to society, they'll make differences in their communities, they'll be really good Little League coaches, they'll be great high school coaches and they're going to make a difference to make sure baseball is alive and vibrant in every inner city."

One of the ways the Urban Youth Academy shines the spotlight on what they're all about is through the Breakthrough Series. The concept for the Breakthrough Series, which started in 2008, was to showcase the best inner-city players in the country, players that might not otherwise be seen by scouts and college coaches because of today's pay-to-play environment surrounding summer leagues and more traditional showcases.

The first two years of the showcase took place in Compton, Calif., but this year the event moved to the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C.

From July 26-30, 91 players showcased their skills in pro-style workouts and games for scouts and college coaches. The final day of games was played at the Durham Bulls Athletic Park and the championship game was broadcast on MLB Network.

One player that made the most of the opportunity was Lance Jeffries from McCluer High in Florissant, Mo.

Jeffries, a 5-foot-10, 185-pound outfielder, ran the fastest 60-yard dash at the event at 6.6 seconds. He also showed a short, quick swing that was on full display when he bounced a ball off the DBAP's Blue Monster wall in left field for a double.

Aside from the chance to showcase their ability in front of the right people, the Breakthrough Series also provides the players involved with some quality instruction. This year, former major leaguers Tommy Davis and Al Downing helped coach the players and talked about their experiences in the big leagues.

"This is going to help me a lot," Jeffries said. "Because scouts will see me playing to the best of my ability, and that's going to help me with my future.

"I want to be a big leaguer, like every little kid. But if things don't work out, I'll probably major in sports therapy or something, something to do with baseball."