The Hank Aaron Invitational, a premier diversity-focused baseball development initiative powered by the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation (YDF) in partnership with USA Baseball, recently took place at Truist Park in Atlanta. The 44 of the 120 participants at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, FL, were selected to showcase their talents at the annual invitation.
The 44 young athletes are a homage to the number Hank Aaron wore throughout his legendary career. The rosters were broken down into teams: Team Aaron, Managed by Lou Collier, and Team Robinson, Managed by Brian Hunter.
Before the game, ADW spoke with Jean Lee Batrus, the Executive Director of the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, about the impact today’s showcase has on the youth. “We’ve had nine prospects make it through the MLB Draft,” Batrus said. “And hundreds more have played colligate baseball and we are also retaining them in the front offices, this is more than just playing this game on the field but keeping them in the industry and making sure they stay a part of our family.”
The MLB-MLBPA goal is to highlight the talents of young athletes that are underrepresented in baseball and support efforts like the Invitational that focus on improving the caliber, effectiveness and availability of amateur baseball and softball programs across the U.S. and internationally.
Batrus also spoke about their mission to increase inclusivity, “We are hoping that young kids across America who might not think of baseball will see this game and see people who look like them… We would love to be coached by Pat Mahomes Sr. to work with Ken Griffey Jr. That’s what this is about growing this game and making it affordable for underrepresented communities.” And she shared her thoughts on the current state of diversity in baseball. “We are seeing this continuation to encourage young black players to play in our sport. To understand that there is an open door given them opportunities to learn from former players, coaches, and managers,” she said.
Lou Collier managed Team Hank Aaron. Collier discussed the importance of the invitational and what he wants the kids to take away from the game. “This is exciting…this is one of the most fun events of the year,” Collier said. “These kids have the opportunity to play in a big-league stadium and represent Hank’s legacy.”
In the opposing dugout, Team Jackie Robinson was managed by Brain Hunter, who shared his thoughts on the impact the invitational has on the community. “I would love for some of the young Black kids to see people who look just like them, and we get more Black kids that want to play baseball.”
We asked Hunter what went into the invitational selection process: “We had a week down in Vero Beach, FL, at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex, where we played four games to evaluate the 120 players, then broke it down to 44 players.”
Several of the players spoke about what this moment means to them and their biggest lesson from this week.
From Team Aaron, Myles Bailey, first base for Team Aaron from Tallahassee, FL class of 2024, who is committed to Florida State University shared, “Not many people have this opportunity… there’s 44 of us here right now, and millions want to do what we’re doing. When asked what it took to reach this moment. This took hours and hours of hard work. This type of opportunity doesn’t just happen overnight.”
Ryland Duson catcher from Menifee, CA, class of 2025 said, “Coming from where I come from, there isn’t many of us that play baseball. So to come out here and see your brother is such a great opportunity.” Duson also gave advice to younger players by saying, “Be your own person, don’t try to be like anyone else.”
Joshua Evans, pitcher/outfielder from Team Robinson, attends Peachtree Ridge High School and is committed to the University of Georgia class of 2024.
Evans shared, “This means a lot to me. I have family here; there’s been so much build-up, and this is my passion.” The biggest lesson Evans learned this week was “Work ethic and knowing what to do with the information that the MLB guys are sharing with us.”
Anthony Pack from Team Robinson, who is committed to the University of California, Los Angeles shared, “Learning from all these African American players and coaches, I’m trying to get to where they were. They have been there and done that, and to be around all these talented young players means the world to me.”
Pack’s most significant takeaway from the week was, “Be aggressive, play loose, not let the moment get to you, and be yourself.”
The Hank Aaron Invitational lived up to the legendary career of the late great Hall of Famer, with the final score being 4-3, with Team Hank Aaron coming out on top.