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Tournaments | Story | 10/8/2016

MLB Breakthrough, PG pair-up

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – There was a real sense of anticipation among just about everyone at Terry Park Saturday afternoon in the hour or two in front of the 2:45 game-time slot at the Perfect Game WWBA Underclass World championship. Sunshine soaked the historic, 100-plus year old complex, and while it was downright windy, at least there was no threat of rain dampening anyone’s parade.

The 2:45 game at Terry Park’s Clemente Field – one of 173 scheduled across two Southwest Florida counties Saturday as part of the PG WWBA Underclass World – featured a team called the MLB-Breakthrough Series (MLB-BS). Its roster consists primarily, although certainly not exclusively, of kids from areas of the country where economic realities might otherwise limit their ability to attend an event of this stature.

The MLB-BS coaching staff was the real attention-grabber Saturday, with former big league players, coaches and even one manager in the dugout, and led by manager Marquis Grissom. A two-time MLB All-Star and Gold Glove center-fielder, Grissom has a son by the same name on the team, but is doing this not just to serve his son, but also the other two-dozen young prospects on the roster.

“This was a no-brainer for me,” Grissom said Saturday when asked why the team was in attendance at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship. “To get these guys the exposure that they’re looking for and giving them the opportunity to try to compete at the highest level, to let them know exactly where they stand as players and what they need to work on and what it’s going to take to get to the next level, that’s very important.”

About an hour before game-time, the players were staying close to Clemente Field’s third-base dugout, visiting amongst themselves and listening intently to any last-minute instructions from their coaches. The young prospects aren’t particularly well-known, although 2018 left-hander/first baseman/ outfielder Yuji Sakane from Temple City, Calif. has committed to Pepperdine and 2018 catcher/corner-infielder/right-hander Jonathan Savage from Chesapeake, Va., is a Virginia Tech commit.

“We didn’t know what we were getting,” Grissom said of the players that were selected for the team. “We don’t know if a kid has good coaching, or if he thinks he knows it all, or if maybe he comes from a bad (home life) situation. For us, we have to be extra-careful about having some kind of relationship with these kids on a short notice and then allow them to get to know us a little bit. … The more we see these kids, it’s better for us and better for them.”

One of the young guys anxious to get things started Saturday was Taj Bradley, a catcher/corner-infielder/right-hander from Stone Mountain, Ga. Bradley is one of the 20-plus players on the MLB-Breakthrough Series squad that hasn’t committed to a college yet, but certainly hopes to do so one day.

“This is a good chance to get yourself exposed to different colleges,” he said. “It’s been a great opportunity (being with MLB-Breakthrough) and I was glad I was chosen to be on this team. They’re giving me a chance to play more baseball and prove myself as a better player.”

The MLB Breakthrough Series – organized through a partnership with Major League Baseball and USA Baseball -- has been around for eight years, and at least three of its alumni – Addison Russell, Jon Singleton (both PG All-Americans) and Carlos Rodon – have made their big-league debuts.

According to a news release posted on USABaseball.com on Jan. 11, 2016:

“The Breakthrough Series is expecting to feature more than 300 baseball and softball prospects, many of whom will be African-American, and is a joint effort by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball to promote baseball as a viable collegiate and professional option for youth from urban and underserved communities. The event is completely cost-free for participants, who are selected by invitation only.”

The 2016 version of the MLB Breakthrough Series debuted in January when 60 invited players joined former major-leaguers Grissom, Dmitri Young, Tom Gordon, Darrell Miller, Eric Davis, Darren Oliver and a handful of others at the Tempe (Ariz.) Diablo Minor League Complex, the spring training home of the Los Angeles Angels.

According to a report on MLB.com, those 60 players were involved in two days of “drills, lectures and games” in an effort to prepare them for their upcoming spring and summer schedules, including their high school seasons, showcases and tournaments. The appearance of this group at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship was its first as a team, although many of the players have been involved with PG before.

Tony Reagins is the former general manager of the Los Angeles Angels who now serves as MLB’s Senior Vice President for Youth Programs. He has been involved with the MLB Breakthrough Series since its inception, and seemed especially pleased to see one of its “all-star” teams performing at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.

“This (tournament) is extremely important for us,” he said Saturday. “What we’re trying to do is give these kids in our program opportunities to, one, experience the game in a different way and, two, give them exposure, whether it be playing against other talented kids or playing in front of college coaches or professional scouts.

“Most of our kids can’t afford that (on their own) and we wanted to be able to provide them an opportunity to experience something like this,” Reagins said. “It’s a great program and to be able to have them be a part of it is very important.”

One of the most recognizable members of the MLB-Breakthrough Series team’s coaching staff who was at Terry Park Saturday was Jerry Manuel, the former big-leaguer who was also named the American League Manager of the Year in 2000 when he was the skipper of the Chicago White Sox.

Manuel became involved with the MLB-BS after being an original member of the MLB Diversity Committee, which was eventually disbanded. But many of the initiatives put forward by the Diversity Committee were certainly worth continuing, and one of those was inviting youngsters to MLB-Breakthrough Series showcases whose families couldn’t afford it on their own.

That led to the establishment of what is called the Elite Development Invitation (EDI), where many of those same youngsters were identified as having the potential to climb the ladder and were brought together in an environment that provided both instruction and exposure.

“Out of that was birthed a team to compete against other teams that have been playing at this level for a period of time,” Manuel said, referring to the team that is here this weekend. “This is just an avenue to, again, get exposure, but at the same time the level of competition throughout (the PG WWBA Underclass World) makes a big difference. If you can perform at this level with Perfect Game, it gives these kids an idea of what’s to be expected of them.

“This has become the place to go if you’re a college recruiter; this has become the place to come to if you’re a scout,” he continued. “If we can somehow get involved in this process, then it gives us a chance to get others exposed to our great game of baseball.”

Del Matthews, the MLB Senior Director of Baseball Development and the son of former MLB All-Star Gary Matthews and brother of former MLB All-Star Gary Matthews Jr., was also with the team at Terry Park Saturday afternoon.

It was the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship’s place on the calendar that MLB officials found most appealing in terms of bringing an MLB-Breakthrough Series team to a PG national tournament event.

“It’s a continuation of the summer programs that we put on jointly with USA Baseball, and really what we wanted to do was provide an opportunity for our kids to get in front of college coaches and scouts,” Matthews said. “We had the Breakthrough Series that happened throughout the summer and then also our Elite Development Invitational. We told the kids there may be an opportunity for us to put together a team and have them come out and showcase their talents.”

The players on this 24-man roster come from nine states, and primarily from California (six), Georgia (five) and Louisiana (four). They were selected after participating in four MLB-Breakthrough Series showcase events and week-long spring training-type camps held throughout the country during the course of the summer.

MLB-BS won its first two pool-play games Friday and Saturday and played for the pool championship late Saturday night. It outscored its first two opponents by a combined 10-4, and the players never looked like they didn’t belong here in those two games.

“This is the first team that we’ve put together and we’re obviously very proud of that,” Matthews said. “Between USA Baseball and Perfect Game, we think it’s a great opportunity for the kids to come down here to compete and play.”

MLB-BS was led offensively by 2018s Basiel Williams from Hammond, La., (HR, 2 1Bs, 2 RBI) and Nolan Brown from Long Beach, Calif., (3 1Bs, 2 runs) in the two wins. Six pitchers combined to give up two earned runs on three hits in 13 2/3 innings (1.02 ERA) but walked 13 batters and hit two while striking out 17.

2019 right-hander Anthony Tomczak from Boca Raton, Fla., threw 4 2/3 no-hit innings and gave up only one unearned run with six strikeouts and four walks in Friday’s win; 2018 lefty Cristian Poche from Metairie, La., tossed three no-hit innings Saturday afternoon, and gave up one unearned run while striking out four and walking three.

“Once I found out I was invited, I was very excited to come down here and showcase myself,” Poche said before making his start on Saturday. “I feel so blessed that I have the opportunity to come out here because I know not every kid can just do this, can say they’ve gone and worked with (former) MLB players and everything to try to get better. I’m just very blessed.”

That feeling of being blessed was shared by Patrick Metzger, a 2018 right-hander who calls New Canaan, Conn., home:

“Where I live in Connecticut, there isn’t any competition like this – this is the best in the country, obviously, he said. “But I’m just looking forward to getting in front of the scouts and other people’s eyes. Throughout the summer they were telling us how they were going to create and all-star team, and I just worked hard. Being a part of this team here is something special, something different; it’s a once-in-a-lifetime thing.”

MLB’s Matthews repeated that the ultimate goal of the MLB-Breakthrough Series is to provide kids from areas of the country that are underserved with an opportunity to go to college. He also noted that the staff had set up a study hall at the team hotel – three days a week, two hours a day – so the kids don’t fall behind in their school work.

“Education is paramount and it’s something we focus on and we stress,” Matthews said. “Hopefully college coaches and recruiters down here are interested in our kids. I’ve heard from a number of (schools) here and I’ve received a lot of positive feedback.”

Reagins explained the veteran coaching staff of former major league players and coaches was put in place so the young players could learn how to play the game correctly, and not just fundamentally but also from a strategic perspective and how to think out on the baseball diamond.

The assembled staff has experience on just about every level of the game and their ability to convey their insights and experiences to the young players is what makes the whole thing work. They are trying to help with the young players’ development, and if the feedback Grissom has received from the players themselves and thank-you notes from parents is any indication, they are succeeding.

“It’s tough to do, but MLB is developing them and giving them this great opportunity to get exposure and letting them see the other side of the game,” he said. “As a coach and an instructor, I come out every day trying to learn more about myself; learn how to be a better coach, what it takes to be a good teammate. And putting a coaching staff together, MLB has done a great job with that.”

Grissom seems to be especially in awe of having Jerry Manuel as one of his coaches. Here is a man who managed nine seasons in the big leagues – six with the White Sox and three with the Mets – and won 704 games and the aforementioned AL Manager of the Year Award in 2000.

“I’m the manager of this team, but I’m looking for him – I’m here to learn,” Grissom said with a laugh. “(Friday) at our game, it was amazing what he’d seen and what I didn’t see. I was so excited to get here and be around Jerry Manuel and maybe learn how to manage a little a bit, but I also want to help these kids get something out of this and take it back home and become a better player and a better person.”

Added Manuel: “This is a learning experience for (MLB-Breakthrough) in terms of where we are and what we’re doing. How important is giving the type of instruction we need to give in order for you to come down and be able to compete in these types of events?”

Manual told PG Saturday that when these players return home in the next day or two, it is his hope that the experience has helped them understand what exactly they’re up against in their mission to receive a college scholarship offer. The PG WWBA Underclass World Championship with its dozens of ranked prospects should show them how high the bar has been set.

It also a great barometer, Manuel said, for the MLB-BS coaches in the respect that they can see first-hand if their training and development strategies are working. He believes it is the coaches’ responsibility to provide the players with the knowledge they need to succeed which should, in turn, give the players the opportunity to use their god-given talent to compete at a higher level.

“I’m just trying to take anything away from this that will make me better in the future and help me get a scholarship to go play college baseball, and then hopefully on to the MLB,” the Louisiana left-hander Poche said. “This is going to get my name out there and people are going to see me who have never seen me before; I think it helps a lot.”

Metzger, the Connecticut left-hander, added: “There are a lot of college coaches out here watching you and it’s just a great opportunity to get exposure, and it’s a great tournament to play in if you want to make it.”

MLB’S Reagins admitted that it going to take time to build the MLB Breakthrough Series to where it ultimately wants to be, but in the meantime everybody associated with the project is dedicated to the idea of providing kids with opportunities. If the program allows kids to get a college scholarship, the goal has been met. If the college scholarship in turn leads to one of these youngsters getting an opportunity min professional baseball, well, that’s the proverbial icing on the cake.

At the end of the day, everyone agreed there was no better place for these baseball-loving teenagers to be this weekend then in Southwest Florida competing at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship.

“Perfect Game is the best thing going,” Grissom said, repeating it twice in case he wasn’t clear the first time. “They bring in all the best kids from around the country and get them to a level where they can say this is what you’re going to compete against in college; this is what it’s going to be like in the minor leagues if you get there. … We need Perfect Game. This is a great tool to use to get our kids to play at the highest level.”

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