VERO BEACH, Fla. – In recent years, with the number of African-American players on MLB rosters dwindling at an alarming rate, the Major League Baseball Players Association, as well as its active and in-active members, have become more determined to help eliminate social and economic barriers to playing the game they love.
The players firmly believe that all youngsters deserve a chance to play baseball, and, as importantly, those youth need to learn to play the game through proper coaching and training techniques. Quite a few former Major Leaguers have taken it upon themselves to help groom future generations of players, and the MLBPA is harnessing some of that knowledge and experience in ways that are sure to help increase the levels of baseball participation across the United States.
In June, the MLBPA and Major League Baseball partnered to host the Breakthrough Series at Curtis Granderson Stadium at the University of Illinois, Chicago. This first-of-its-kind event provided a select group of about 60 mostly minority high school juniors and seniors an opportunity to develop their skills and showcase their talent before professional scouts and college recruiters.
In July, the focus shifted to Florida where the MLBPA, MLB and USA Baseball hosted their third annual Elite Development Invitational on the historic fields of Dodgertown in Vero Beach.
In Chicago and Vero Beach, the young players were taught the game by more than 25 different former Major Leaguers, representing every position and with hundreds of years of big league experience on their resumes.
At Dodgertown, as each young player tried to execute sacrifice bunts, one directed to each side of the infield, to begin his batting practice, former All-Star Marquis Grissom exhorted him to “hustle in the strike zone.”
For many of the young hitters it was the very first piece of wisdom handed down from one of the former major leaguers serving as an instructor for primarily economically challenged kids from all regions of the country.
But the lessons weren't just coming directly from the former MLB players at the camp; their instruction embodied the accumulated baseball knowledge they had collectively experienced during their decades of playing and coaching the game at its highest level.
That bunting tip from Grissom? Well, the four-time all-star concedes he was never interested in bunting until near the end of his 17-year career when he was 34 years old and played for the Dodgers. That's when Hall of Famer Maury Wills taught him to bunt the right way.
“We were right here in Vero Beach,” Grissom said. “Maury Wills was telling us about getting into good bunting position and he always used the word ‘hustle.' I asked him, ‘Maury, what do you mean by hustle?' And he said, ‘You've got to hustle in the strike zone.'”
That was Wills' way of telling players they needed to quickly get into position to bunt with their bats low and level in front of the strike zone.
Grissom, now 50, shook his head and wondered aloud how many points he could have added to his batting average if he had learned to better utilize his considerable speed by bunting for base hits during the first 12 years of his major league career.
That bunting tip Wills provided back in the early 2000s became a lesson Grissom wanted to instill in the young players at the Elite Development Invitational as well as those back home who participate in his youth program in the Atlanta area.Video
“Thanks to Maury Wills, I finally learned how to bunt and developed a passion for the bunt,” Grissom said. “Now, I can teach the bunt.”
Over on the other side of the sprawling Dodgertown complex, Ken Hill, Wayne Gomes, Tom “Flash” Gordon and Marvin Freeman were working primarily on mechanics with a group of live-armed young pitchers.
“You've got a lot of ex-big league players with a lot of experience here,” said Hill, who won 117 games during a 14-year career and was participating in his third EDI camp. “Once you have that many guys with that much experience in one place teaching the kids it's like a gold mine.”
Wayne Gomes, who pitched for six seasons in the majors and now operates the Virginia Baseball Academy, was a first-time instructor at the 2017 EDI and felt like he was learning as much as he was teaching.
“I can teach and I can learn more from others and take it back home,” Gomes said. “I like to be around others who know more than me so I can pick their brains and learn. Everybody here loves to talk baseball. “
The former players who took part in the camp this July also included Fernando Arroyo, Homer Bush, John Cangelosi, Lou Collier, Eric Davis, Bob Didier, Mike Easler, Dave Gallagher, Jeffrey Hammonds, Ron Jackson, Pat Mahomes, Darrell Miller, Reid Nichols, Rob Picciolo, Bo Porter, Rob Sasser, Junior Spivey, Lenny Webster and Dmitri Young.
Additionally, Hall of Famers Dave Winfield and Ken Griffey Jr. and former All-Star and now MLBPA Executive Director Tony Clark each stopped by to offer encouragement and advice to the youngsters.
“What makes this camp different from others is the coaches,” Young said. “You have major leaguers with some 200 years of major league knowledge. It's a baseball library. What we're giving them is what we've learned along the way.”
Young, in his third year as an instructor, was originally recruited as a coach by Hammonds, a player who had helped him break into the game when they were together on the 1998 Reds and who had since become one of his best friends in the game.
“He (Hammonds) was the one who really showed me what it was like to be a big league ballplayer,” Young said. “The funny thing was that he learned how to be a big league ballplayer from Eric Davis, who learned how to be a big league ballplayer from Dave Parker, who learned how to be a big league ballplayer from Willie Stargell, who learned how to be a big league ballplayer from Roberto Clemente. As you see, tradition does go on.”