4 of the top 5 picks in this year's MLB draft were black, the result of minority development and other grassroots programs.

History was made in the first round of the 2022 Major League Baseball draft. For the first time in 30 years, nine black players were drafted in the first round, including four of the top five picks.

The Arizona Diamondbacks drafted high school outfielder Druw Jones with the second pick. Pitcher Kumar Rocker (Texas Rangers), shortstop Termarr Johnson (Pittsburgh Pirates) and outfielder Elijah Green (Washington Nationals) rounded out the top five. All four were participants in the MLB Develops programs.

“It’s a safe pipeline,” Johnson he told MLB.com on draft night. “It’s amazing that we can have those guys together, support them, cheer them on and just love each other. Is special.

Through programs like the Breakthrough Series, the Hank Aaron Invitational and the DREAM Series, MLB has been working to reverse the much-discussed decline of African-American players. About 7% of today’s major leagues are African-American, and that number drops to 4% in NCAA Division I baseball.

“We’ve been working hard in this area for the last six or seven years,” Del Matthews, MLB’s vice president of baseball development, told the Tribune. “And now we’re starting to see more consistent fruits of our labor, specifically with this year, and most of the kids that were drafted have had the opportunity to touch some of MLB’s developmental programs.

“We really feel like we’ve played a big part in giving them the platform and also the exposure and continuing to encourage and push and inspire them. And every time they came home, they continue to improve, they continue to work on their game. And you know, iron sharpens iron at the end of the day. It became a kind of competition between them and they pushed each other to really be the best they could be. This year’s class was just a really talented draft class.”

According to MLB, more than 630 Hank Aaron Invitational, DREAM Series and Breakthrough Series alumni are playing college or university baseball.

Through the MLB Identification Tour, baseball works with coaches and scouts across the country to identify young players, particularly African American and Latino players, to invite them to participate in future development programs. Matthews said many return summer after summer.

Both Chicago teams participate in the MLB Develops programs. The White Sox ACE (Amateur City Elite) program recently won the RBI World Series in both the junior and senior divisions.

Matthews acknowledges that MLB doesn’t want to miss out on anyone.

“That’s why it’s great that there are other programs like Minority Baseball Prospects and Future Stars that provide opportunities for minorities,” he said. “It’s not always the same players who attend each of those events. That way, kids get exposed to a lot of different platforms. And if they do it right, it helps them get to the next level of events.

“That is one of the positive aspects, we are all seeing good numbers and results. It’s tremendous for the community.”

Alexander Wyche, a former college baseball player and high school baseball coach, saw a need for a showcase for black talent.

“I really wanted to be on the ground level,” he told the Tribune. “Working at a Title IX school in Atlanta, the mecca of black baseball, I felt like I had the best experience and opportunity to really make a change in the game of baseball, and that’s how Minority Baseball Prospects began.”

He started by taking videos of high school players and posting them on social media to highlight them, and it took off from there. Using her Instagram and Twitter accounts, Wyche estimates that he has helped more than 150 young baseball players gain exposure.

But Wyche doesn’t stop at baseball; he is also incorporating education. MBP plans to add monthly online tutoring and SAT preparation in 2023.

“Our push now is just to give these kids the knowledge to understand what it really takes to go to the next levels,” he said. “We are only scratching the surface. Get into the educational part. A big reason a lot of minority kids aren’t (playing at the college level) is because baseball doesn’t award full scholarships. We’re still just scratching the surface of understanding how the educational part relates to the baseball part.”

MBP tours the host country college events and tours in which scouts, coaches and other interested parties can see talent that may not have been on their radar before and encourage players to attend college. He has put on exhibits at Truist Park, where the Atlanta Braves play, giving kids a chance to experience a major league ballpark.

The event, which Wyche said is intended to give an “HBCU homecoming feel,” has drawn about 900 kids. He takes the show on tour and has events scheduled in Gastonia, NC, Detroit, and Palm Beach, Florida.

MBP’s reach also extends to the Chicagoland area. Among Wyche’s growing black baseball network is Earnest Horton, or “Coach E” as he is known. A native of Chicago, Horton attended Arkansas on a baseball scholarship. After earning his degree in physical education, he returned home and began teaching in Chicago Public Schools and was an assistant baseball coach at Morgan Park.

“I saw that there was still a need and that need is equitable training on and off the field,” Horton told the Tribune. “We hear this a lot (that) black kids can’t afford baseball, but that’s a blanket statement. We really have to chisel in and say, ‘What can’t they afford?’ We have a lot of organizations that are playing baseball, believe it or not. I hear people say that nobody is playing, but I don’t agree. We’re playing it at a great pace, it’s just not being advertised.”

So Horton decided to help fill that need. During the early part of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020, when everything was shut down, he started a baseball instruction program called Black Baseball Matters that provides free coaching and basic training to youth across Chicago.

“A baseball lesson can cost between $30 an hour and $150 an hour,” he said. “We don’t want kids and their families to feel like they have to break the bank to adjust to that feeling.”

In July, Black Baseball Matters hosted an event with Jackie Robinson West Little League.

“We want to create a safe environment around black baseball,” Horton said. “Most minor leagues survive on volunteers who may have never played baseball. To really create a boom in black baseball, we have to give them the tools they need for instruction. We teach our children that we are not making excuses or looking for handouts. Let’s figure this out. You know, grassroots, blue collar, we’re Chicago.”

There has been much discussion over the years about the participation of African Americans in the sport, and many organizations have made efforts to help grow the game. From the looks of this year’s draft and the movement that’s happening with local grassroots organizations, there may be some momentum.

“I feel like as the years go by, we’ll definitely have those numbers grow because of events like the Dream Series, Breakthrough Series and Hank Aaron,” Johnson told WABE-FM in Atlanta last year. “You know, baseball is fun around here, and they’ll definitely love playing it.”

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