Baseball tour­ney with HBCUs ‘foot in the door’ for play­ers

Daily Times (Primos, PA) - - SPORTS - By Brett Mar­tel

NEW OR­LEANS » Hall of Famer An­dre Daw­son sees el­e­ments of his own story in the black col­lege play­ers con­verg­ing in New Or­leans this week for a tour­na­ment spon­sored, pro­moted and broad­cast na­tion­ally by Ma­jor League Baseball.

Be­fore Daw­son’s two-decade ca­reer with the Mon­treal Ex­pos and Chicago Cubs, he was a walk-on at Florida A&M. Scouts who’d been watch­ing Daw­son “dis­ap­peared” af­ter his knee in­jury in high school, he re­called, but en­rolling at a His­tor­i­cally Black Col­lege or Univer­sity helped him keep play­ing.

“That’s what these pro­grams do,” Daw­son said, ad­ding that HBCUs like his alma mater “were the ones that re­ally ex­tended me that op­por­tu­nity.”

There’s one con­sid­er­able dif­fer­ence be­tween now and the early 1970s, how­ever. The tal­ent pool from which black col­lege pro­grams pri­mar­ily re­cruit has shrunk as foot­ball and basketball have grown in pop­u­lar­ity, par­tic­u­larly in ur­ban ar­eas.

As part of an ef­fort the ad­dress that, MLB has spon­sored a now decade­old tour­na­ment de­signed to high­light HBCU baseball pro­grams, hop­ing to lure young black ath­letes back to the sport of Jackie Robin­son, Wil­lie Mays and Hank Aaron.

The tour­na­ment has yet to fea­ture a sin­gle player who wound up in the big leagues, but MLB shows no signs of re­duc­ing its in­vest­ment in the event — or in the ur­ban youth academies around the coun­try that are meant to pro­vide in­nercity youth with year-round places to train and play.

Last week, the tour­na­ment for­mally known as the Ur­ban In­vi­ta­tional was re­named the An­dre Daw­son Clas­sic. This week­end, it’ll fea­ture six HBCUs: Alabama State, Al­corn State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Gram­bling State, Prairie View A&M and South­ern. The Univer­sity of New Or­leans, which is help­ing to host the event with the New Or­leans MLB Youth Academy, also will play, along with Illi­nois Chicago.

For now, the tour­na­ment’s legacy is em­bod­ied by for­mer HBCU play­ers such as Earl Burl, who played for Al­corn State and did some of his train­ing at the New Or­leans MLB Youth Academy. He was a 30th-round draft choice by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015. He spent two years in Toronto’s mi­nor league sys­tem, fol­lowed by a short stint in an in­de­pen­dent league. Now, he’s in­volved in a MLB fel­low­ship pro­gram train­ing him for a po­ten­tial front-of­fice ca­reer.

Burl as­serts that the tour­na­ment changed his life.

“If you have a great game, it’s go­ing to be seen by some­body,” Burl said. “A lot of scouts now-a-days do a lot of video an­a­lyz­ing. So be­ing put on the radar that way is a good cor­ner­stone” for build­ing a rep­u­ta­tion with scouts.

“It hasn’t pro­duced a ma­jor league baseball player, but my thing is, some­one’s al­ways keep­ing their foot in the door,” Burl added. “So I feel like the more you have this, the fur­ther you’ll have peo­ple go­ing in the game.”

Mean­while, MLB’s ef­forts to raise the pro­file of the tour­na­ment on MLB Net­work and on­line at­tempts to ad­dress some of baseball’s per­cep­tion prob­lems among young black ath­letes, Burl said.

“If you’re not see­ing peo­ple who look like you play­ing, it’s not some­thing that you’re go­ing to grav­i­tate to,” Burl said. “It gives you that mis­con­cep­tion that it’s not for you.”

Sim­i­larly, Prairie View coach Aunt­wan Rig­gins said MLB’s abil­ity to pro­mote the tour­na­ment its youth academies pro­vides young black ath­letes role mod­els and ex­am­ples of peo­ple who par­layed youth baseball into full or par­tial col­lege schol­ar­ships.

“Baseball is a very, very hard sport to mar­ket to kids of color be­cause you see a LeBron James, or see foot­ball play­ers on TV and shoe deals and com­mer­cials,” Rig­gins said, not­ing that foot­ball was his fa­vorite sport grow­ing up. But Rig­gins played baseball, too, and found out he was rather good at it. He play baseball for Texas South­ern, was drafted by Toronto and later wound up within San Diego’s mi­nor league sys­tem, mak­ing it as far as Triple-A with the Port­land Beavers.

BEBETO MATTHEWS — THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE

This file photo shows An­dre Daw­son dur­ing a news con­fer­ence in New York.

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