Urban youth attend Breakthrough Series in Houston
High schoolers come out to showcase their skills in front of pro, collegiate scouts
HOUSTON -- If you're a talented teenage baseball player, there's nothing more valuable than exposure.
Five-dozen high school players found it in droves on Tuesday, as the annual Breakthrough Series arrived in Houston for its sixth year. The series is part of a combined effort by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball to spotlight and bolster the involvement of urban youth in the sport.
"This event gives the kids an opportunity to see how the pro games work and get some attention they might not otherwise see," said Grambling State assistant coach Davin Pierre. "This is a business-type atmosphere. That requires a maturity from them, so it's a necessary event. There needs to be more like it."
After a registration session Monday afternoon and an Astros game that night, the actual baseball began in earnest in the typically sweltering Houston humidity.
The morning session consisted of players (most of whom are 16-18 years old) running 60-yard sprints for scouts, taking batting practice and showing off their fielding prowess.
Meanwhile, scouts kept a keen eye on the action, with most of them seeing the players for the first time. Along with about a dozen pro scouts, at least a dozen more were from colleges.
"It's good exposure to not just the pro level, but they might have a chance to earn a scholarship or get a lot of different routes to pro ball," said Oakland A's area scout Armann Brown. "It's an eye-opener."
Because of Houston's proximity to so many historically black colleges and universities in the Gulf Coast states, those schools were well represented at the event. Some Southwestern Athletic Conference powers like Alcorn State, Grambling State and Southern all sent scouts to the event.
"It's an essential need to get minority players an opportunity with some of the participation figures we've seen in recent years," Pierre said. "Major League Baseball, with this event, is helping them by not just making it about playing pro ball. It lets kids know that college is there, and that baseball can lead you down a lot of different paths."
Entrants in last year's Breakthrough Series committed to collegiate baseball programs such as Arizona, Ole Miss, USC and Vanderbilt, among many others.
With two sparkling fields at the Houston Astros' Urban Youth Academy to work with, players split up by position to learn under the tutelage of former Major Leaguers and pro coaches during the brief afternoon session.
In between, the high-schoolers got some famous visitors, as Wesley Wright and Marc Krauss of the Astros and Dan Straily and Derek Norris of the visiting Oakland A's stopped by for a lunchtime Q&A session.
The players answered questions about everything from their Minor League experiences to their pregame routines to their offseason workout regimens. Mostly, they provided insight into what it will take for the 60-plus participants to be in their shoes one day.
"Make it by failing," Krauss told the attentive audience. "That seems weird to say, but it's something one of my Minor League coaches said, and it stuck with me. A 3-out-of-10 rate is a failure anywhere else, but that's an All-Star in this sport. Learn to accept that you can't be perfect every at-bat, every pitch and you'll be able to mentally handle what you'll face as you progress."
All four pro players hail from small towns, and grew up off the radar of baseball fame. The Breakthrough Series, they said, would have been a dream opportunity for them.
"The biggest event I went to was the MLB East Coast Pro Showcase when I was a junior in high school," Wright said. "I didn't have a lot of exposure, so I'm almost a little jealous.
"At the same time, it can be overwhelming, because you know what's on the line and see the talent you're up against. But it's good preparation for the competition they'll face at every higher level."
Almost 90 participants of the Breakthrough Series have gone on to be drafted, including 43 the last two years, with four of them going in the first round.
The most likely candidate for that top-line status at this year's event would have been California shortstop Jacob Gatewood, but he was a last-minute cancellation.
Gatewood won the junior division of last week's All-Star Home Run Derby at Citi Field.
Still, touted prospects like Joshua Morgan, Denz'l Chapman, Tyree David and Luis Alvarado all flashed their first-day Draft potential.
The 60 prospects are divided up into four teams, with two scrimmage games awaiting them Wednesday and a showcase game at Minute Mark slated for Thursday. That game will air on MLB Network on Saturday at 11 a.m. ET.
This is the Breakthrough Series' first year in Houston, with USA Baseball's National Training Center in Cary, N.C., hosting it from 2010-12 and the Compton, Calif., Urban Youth Academy doing so for the program's first two years.
Chris Abshire is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.