TEMPE, Ariz. — Just six years ago when Major League Baseball’s Dream Series began, baseball was in an entirely different headspace. The world wasn’t familiar with the word “shutdown” in 2017. The Let The Kids Play campaign had yet to technically take over baseball. There were not dozens of social media accounts dedicated almost entirely to bat flips and strikeout struts.
The idea of getting the top Black pitchers and catchers together to not only work on their skills and gain exposure but bond as human beings, ballplayers and friends, felt like snowflake hitting a flood of momentum that had been running against our existence in the modern game. But the seeds planted then have borne fruit, which in 2023 — Dream Series’ first time back together since the pandemic — are bigger than just bats and balls.
The increased media coverage is one thing. To see The New York Times watching guys throw bullpens at Diablo Stadium was fascinating. MLB Network did a live broadcast from the ballpark, which began around dawn. The league’s website sent a handful of people to blanket coverage and before anyone showed up at all, a documentary filmmaker was on hand to get footage for an upcoming project.
Even down to the kids, many of whom are straight-up polished when it comes to their candor and public speaking experience before they even show up, what was clear throughout the soggy weekend in Arizona is that the community that created this function is still going strong, and multiplying across generations.
Everywhere you looked, a different person integral to the effort of the game popped up or popped out. Each successive day reminded you of just how deep the connection Black folks have to baseball and that it is intergenerational and deeply complex. As a result, even if just emotionally, a corner had been turned that could not have been imagined five years ago.
The question of “where are all the Black ballplayers” has evolved. The query now is, “what are you going to do when you find an answer?” Judging from all the scouts and onlookers at the Angels’ minor league park, that answer is only growing. The community is real.
At this point, the entire world of what we qualify as “Black baseball” goes well beyond just players we may or may not see in the All-Star Game. Guys like Pittsburgh Pirates third baseman Ke’Bryan Hayes might not be household names right now, but our impact on the game and the lives of young athletes overall have led a lot of people to be more visible for us as a culture.
While many fans and media scramble to beat the bushes for the latest prospects to cover and highlight — which is great — the ecosystem of how baseball works and who does what continues to expand from an opportunity standpoint. Along with players, the spaces in which we celebrate ourselves, never mind build, will continue to expand and flourish.
Five years ago, a network like Minority Baseball felt like a pipe dream. Umpires going from academies to the bigs was not on the radar. You’re reminded that if you really wanted to immerse yourself in the entire cinematic universe of Black baseball, you could. And if you’re ever lucky enough to be around one of those gatherings, you’re reminded of just how rich it can be and, in many ways always will be.
It’s Friday night and the road from Tempe to Mesa is crowded but not packed. About 100 people are headed to a party at Cincinnati Reds pitcher Hunter Greene’s house, yet most of them don’t know that yet. The 23-year-old is hosting all the players from the camp at his spring training home, complete with a taco truck in the driveway right next to the pool with the mini waterfall. The stars in the night sky over the buttes offer a picturesque view of what life can be like for a big leaguer once the season comes around again.
Of course, Greene isn’t just any big leaguer. He’s a Dream Series and MLB Compton Youth Academy alum and was the second overall pick in the 2017 MLB draft. He regularly tops 100 mph on the radar gun and many people think he’ll be a breakout ace in 2023 for the Cincinnati Reds. Justin Dunn (Reds) and Jo Adell (Los Angeles Angels) are there too, just hanging out, kicking it.
The kids are playing MLB: The Show on Greene’s 100-inch TV in the living room and generally just having a good time chatting it up with big leaguers. Needless to say, for many, this is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Sure, perhaps the instruction they got from three-time World Series champion Mike Scioscia is going to stick with them, but they’ll probably remember the grand foyer and full-length skylight roof just as much.
Which is fine. The lone reason to want to play baseball isn’t just to make money, but it’s a strong motivation once it’s even remotely in your grasp. For pretty much any kid there, they’ve got to believe they’ve got a shot with hard work.
One of those people is JP Massey. He played in Dream Series as well, pitched for the Minnesota Golden Gophers and is now in the Pittsburgh Pirates system after being drafted in the seventh round in 2022. He’s not there for the free custom Nikes all the kids are going to get, he’s just soaking it in. He and Greene are the same age, and still friends.
“Dude, this is unreal. I mean obviously you probably hear it in the background,” Massey said, sitting in Greene’s backyard next to one of his many cactuses. “Honestly, I think it’s awesome just because you can be from anywhere across the world and still have a friendship with a guy. Someone in New York can be best friends with someone in LA just because of the game of baseball and because of these events where they get to meet each other, get to go across the country and compete. And nowadays, I was fortunate enough to get drafted and I get to play with some of the guys that I played with in high school because of Breakthrough or because of Dream Series, and so it’s just always a fun experience when you get to reconnect with someone that you played with before.”
It sounds so basic, so obvious, so plain, but is so real. Kid who loves playing baseball and is good at it, gets opportunity to grow, becomes a professional, continues to build with the people who helped him and the next generations, and has a blast doing it. When provided with resources and opportunities that make sense, that’s what happens.
“Man, I just wanted to create a different experience for the kids. Obviously, going through the Dream Series, going to other events, I wanted to just create a different space for the guys to be able to kick it, have some food, hang out and just talk,” Greene says in his kitchen, acknowledging that these kids are barely younger than he is. He wrote a letter that each kid received before departing the camp.
“It’s pretty much a letter talking to them about the importance of dreaming and continuing to want to achieve your goal and to believe in your goal and tying in Martin Luther King and how his vision came to fruition and came to life. So, all of those amazing things and just continue to be a good person, man. You know what it is. So the challenge of getting to the big leagues, the temptations off the field. I was just talking to them about that,” he said candidly. “A lot of expectation, a lot of distractions, man, but … I just tell the kids, my family kept me in line. My support group, my circle … you know how important a circle is. So, making sure that the circle’s not too big. And knowing the people that are within your circle really care about you and want the best for you. So, all of that, man, and making sure that they’re just a good judge of character. And it’s not easy … You know what I mean?”
It isn’t supposed to be easy, but it also shouldn’t feel like it’s impossible if you’re Black. Not everyone is blessed with a rocket arm and camera-ready smile, though. Many more have a different grind.
Just because you have the talent, doesn’t mean you’re going to make it. There’s an old saying that if you’re good enough, they’ll find you, but in baseball, that’s a red herring. Plenty of talent either falls through the cracks, just plain gets ignored, or is just plain blackballed out of the professional ranks for whatever reason. For every famous person on the infamous Mitchell Report, which revealed the history of use of illegal performance-enhancing substances by players, there are dozens of other dudes who never see the light of day in the bigs for reasons that have nothing to do with, say, drugs.
There are other guys that will basically go anywhere to play at any time no matter what. Which could take you across the globe, not just the nation. Such is the story of Dwayne Hosey. An LA native, he never played competitive sports in high school for a simple reason: He was in a gang. His eligibility was basically never an option then, but he was a great football player. A solid all-around athlete, in junior college, waiting on his chance to be on the gridiron with USC, he took up baseball.
“I saw a cat that played baseball, one that I grew up with in Pasadena City. He said, ‘You should come out for the team, man. You should play with us.’ I said, ‘Football’s over with, I’ll go ahead and do that,’ ” Hosey recalled, sitting with his wife and family members in the crowd. He’d been circulating the side fields all weekend watching his son, Braeden, also a switch-hitter, be a part of the program.
“I did that, man. I went out there and I tried out. I was about to get cut, because I was a very athletic guy, I was about to get cut, because my baseball knowledge wasn’t there, but I was very, very athletic. And so I made it, some kind of play. The coach said, ‘You know, I’m keeping you.’ ”
At a juco playoff tournament, he ended up getting noticed after playing against major leaguer-to-be Brian Hunter’s team. Hunter, who appeared in three World Series with the Atlanta Braves, was a coach at Dream Series, this year as well. Just serving his role as a somewhat random baseball dad, Hosey’s connection to the game was still very apparent. He now runs a facility in Omaha, where he lives.
He stayed in Omaha after playing there in the minors, with a career road map that rivals a Johnny Cash song. Sarasota, South Bend, Madison, Modesto, Huntsville, Stockton, Wichita, Las Vegas, the list goes on. When he finally made it to Omaha, the Triple-A affiliate of the Kansas City Royals, boom, baseball struck. As in, literally.
Hosey finally made it to the big leagues with the Boston Red Sox, and appeared in the American League Division Series with Boston in 1995. Odds are you’ve never heard of Hosey or don’t remember him. He went on to play in Japan, where one year he beat out he beat out Hideki Matsui — that one — for the Central League home run title.
Of course, here he was, back with all of his old playing buddies, still contributing to the game through his family and work, and in general soaking up the vibes because it was nothing like this when he came up. We’re talking about a gang member who ended up being one of the most popular players in Japan. That takes more than luck. That takes community.
“It was all around me. I had to make a choice. You know, I was in that lifestyle,” Hosey, 55, said in Arizona. “I wanted to live. I wanted to have a family one of these years, one of these lives in the future. And I said, ‘Well, the only way that’s gonna happen, I gotta get my life together. So I have to start separating myself.’ So, you know, I found a relationship with the most high, and I changed my life that way. And then I start separating myself, you know?”
Tye Waller and Jerry Manuel, other coaches at Dream Series, coached Hosey or against him at points in their career and raved about his skill set then.
“And one thing about me, if I’m gonna do something, it’s gotta be 100%. I’m either in or … are you the Blood or are you a Crip?” Hosey said. “You don’t play the middle. So I said, ‘I’m gonna do it.’ It was hard. But I started separating myself. Then I tried to see who my real friends were. And then, anyway, once I’d made that commitment to do the truth, then the separation happened. So, then baseball … then sports became my love, and so obviously I was just gonna just go ahead and do the sports thing, and then that sports helped me get outta that.”
Not every kid who ends up on a ballfield is a problem child who needs a chance. Not even close. And the kids who MLB is looking to put through its pipeline probably are nowhere close to that either, but that’s not even the point. What’s incredible is how through all of this turmoil, and with all of the questions casual fans have about who’s doing what in the game, it’s still such a small world.
On many levels, keeping that continuity between guys who played at the highest level and those still coming up in the Black baseball community is as important as anything for the lifeblood of what we do to play this game. More players equal more chances. And more chances don’t come without hard work, generationally, top to bottom. Hosey’s lifetime average in the bigs was .274 and he hit four home runs. One need not be the biggest star to make a difference, being present is half the battle.
“I coached with the Angels or Brewers for six years, all through the system. And then I stopped to watch him go to high school, to my kids,” Hosey explained. “He’s just young. He’s 15. He’s never been around a lot of people that look like him. I’m a former player. I’m looking at it deeper, and he don’t have to hear me. He can hear other big leaguers, guys who have done the thing too, and see that Daddy knows what he’s talking about.
“I warned him, I said, ‘Look, you’re gonna run, you’re gonna see some guys that are gonna amaze you but you can’t get … that’s just part of it. That’s their gift. You take your gifts and you just, you work, you rock with what the most high’s given you,’ and then, you know, and so … But don’t shrink back. That makes you drive, that should drive you further. So that’s what I’m hoping to get outta this for him. That he can see that. And then being responsible, being on time, you know, staying in a hotel, being on his own away from home.”
Be it from California to Japan, the connections Black baseball makes globally are often lifelong.
Kip Rutto did not grow up playing baseball. Before two years ago, he didn’t even own a glove. Love brought him to the diamond. Oh, and the longest World Series game ever played.
In 2016, he and his wife Mindy bought a farm in Western Massachusetts. It was an old sawmill with a history, they weren’t sure exactly how they were going to go about using it. Fast-forward to 2018, when the two are up in the middle of the night watching the Los Angeles Dodgers and Red Sox go 18 innings in Los Angeles, a game that ended with a Max Muncy walk-off homer at nearly 4 a.m. Boston time. Then and there they decided that making bats was something they needed to dedicate themselves to.
But that process isn’t as easy as just cutting up a few sticks and selling them out of the back of a trunk. So, while they’d found a couple locations locally in sporting goods stores to sell lumber, it just wasn’t really working. So, he started reaching out to anyone he could about the sport. The company was born as “Paper City Bats,” and it took them a while to figure out the legalese. You can’t just be any random person to officially offer your wares to the MLB. After going through the lengthy certification process, they changed their company name to Rutto Bats, their family name. An appropriate switch, as the operation involves Kip, Mindy and their three kids, who often help design custom bats, and their childlike creative sensibilities show up fabulously.
While still trying to get his foot through the door, he’d made a few connections with people, but in that time, The Players Alliance (TPA) was launched, a collective of current and former Black ballplayers looking to take matters into their own hands when it comes to developing the game. A perfect turn of fortune, Kip put it on himself to get an audience with them.
“I had a plan, I had an advancement for them. And then when I got to Denver, met the kids and I asked somebody, I couldn’t see anybody that looked like me,” Rutto explained of his plot. “And then somebody was like, ‘I don’t know, I think LaTroy knows them, but he’s busy.’ I was like, ‘Just give me one second to meet him.’ ”
Next thing you know, he’s sitting in the manager’s office of the clubhouse at Coors Field before the 2021 Futures Game. LaTroy Hawkins is the manager, and Rutto figured this was his best shot. Hawkins, who was getting ready to manage a baseball game with the sport’s youngest stars getting their time in the spotlight, didn’t know Rutto was coming. He had to do something.
So, he told Rutto to come to TPA’s party the next night. When he showed up, Rutto nearly was thrown out. He arrived with a bunch of bats, trying to get into a party that most famously featured Dodgers outfielder Mookie Betts and comedian Tiffany Haddish dancing the Electric Slide. Eventually, he got some bats to some of the players there and a relationship was built.
Besides helping each other out to find opportunities, something else happened: They became friends.
“I wanted him to experience that. I wanted him to have full access to my Rolodex, and to the people I select, this would be a good contact for him. This guy,” Hawkins said, slapping Rutto on the shoulder last month at the Dream Series. “Wherever I am, I’m going to tell Kip, and he’s going to show up.”
Having traveled to quite a few places in his life, never mind career, when it came time to celebrate his 50th birthday, Hawkins thought of his buddy. He’d considered summitting Kilimanjaro — he still likes to seek thrills every now and again — but instead reinvested his time in his human relationships, specifically with his people.
He went back to Kenya with Rutto. They took the flight to Nairobi. Then the seven-hour drive to the village, where he spent two weeks just connecting to the soil and taking in the wealth of genuine love he felt from the experience.
They held a little impromptu baseball clinic for a week at a local day camp, an obviously fulfilling experience for all involved. Hawkins bonded with Rutto’s tight-knit family, who even had to trick him into not ruining his own birthday party. Being a typical overzealous American, he tried to buy his own cake before a function.
“I’m going to go in there and get me a cake for my birthday. And Kip was like, ‘No, we don’t eat cake around here. We eat pineapples and stuff. Pineapple’s for celebrations,’ ” Hawkins said. “And I’m like, ‘Huh? OK, cool.’ Because I hadn’t had dessert with dinner. I hadn’t seen any desserts. It was the first time I saw a bakery, so I’m believing it.
“And we get to the celebration, they got this big ol’ cake with my face on it and all that good stuff. I’m like, ‘I thought y’all didn’t eat cake in here?’ Kip said, ‘I was trying to keep you from buying a cake, LaTroy.’ ”
Genuine moments like that are what makes the world go ’round in terms of why any human beings want to be around others at all. A chance friendship based on a game leads a guy from Gary, Indiana, to the village of a bat supplier near Nairobi to find a connection to a past that he might not have otherwise known. He even got a nickname from the family matriarch. Singalai: the tall one.
“I can’t even describe it anymore. I felt at home, walking down the dirt road with Kip, and Kip kept saying like, ‘Dude, you just look like you’re just so comfortable.’ I said, ‘Kip, I’m comfortable everywhere I go. But I feel this place in my soul,’ and there’s a difference,” Hawkins said with a degree of wonder. “I can move in any environment, but being in Kenya, it was different. I mean, everybody outside, I’m like, ‘No, they look like my cousin. She looks like my mom. She’s like my grandmother. They look like my best friend.’ It was people you recognize. It was a definite soul-touching two weeks for me.”
Whatever baseball brings to Black folks, how we include each other in our lives will be affected too. Be it the highest levels of representation possible as a player down to the very tools used to play the game, when familiar and like faces can welcome you in, the likelihood to succeed is higher.
“The people that I met in this industry have been a blessing. They have made me a carefree human being,” Rutto said. “What happened is, to be honest, I’ve seen this game as a part of my upbringing.”
For a host of reasons, 2023 is going to be fascinating year for Black baseball. If everyone’s luck has it, hopefully a lot more of us will continue to feel at home with the sport, whether you’ve ever touched a diamond or not.