We’ve somehow made it to All-Star Weekend, and for the first time since the gleaming jewel on the waterfront now known as T-Mobile Park opened as Safeco Field in 2001, major league baseball converges on the Pacific Northwest for this mid-summer Oktoberfest that celebrates the stars of the present but, increasingly, is also giving needed focus and attention to the sport’s future.
The game itself won’t be played until Tuesday night, for the 90th time, but it’s never been more irrelevant. With a fully integrated interleague schedule, and with the short-lived attempt to make home field advantage for the World Series a prize. it is now nothing more than an exhibition game that is increasingly less attractive than the Home Run Derby that will be held on the preceding night. With current Mariners star Julio Rodriguez and Oregon native Adley Rutschman in the field, there are far more locals enthused about Monday night that Tuesday.
What makes those players even more exciting to watch is the fact that they are both not far removed from their minor league careers, and it is events like the Futures Game and the MLB Draft that will be held this weekend, amidst the carnival that will be held at the Play Ball Park being set up adjacent to the Mariners’ park and the adjacent soccer/football venue Lumen Field, that will make this a truly exciting event for the ever-loyal fan base, now in their 47th year without a World Series appearance, let alone a title.
Sure, there will be other events that will celebrate the special venue, including a celebrity softball game that will not only feature numerous Mariners greats from virtually every era of their existence, from Alvin Davis to Felix Hernandez, as well as members of Pearl Jam. But what I’m personally most encouraged about is the newest addition to the weekend, as reported by the founding organization’s website when it was announced nearly a month ago:
HBCU baseball all-stars will be featured at the mid-summer classic.
The HBCU Swingman Classic, presented by T-Mobile & powered by the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, will feature a game between HBCU’s best at the Division I level. The game will take place at 7:30 p.m. PT/10:30 p.m. ET on Friday at T-Mobile Park in Seattle, the site of the 2023 All-Star Game. The contest will air live on MLB Network.
Del Matthews, MLB vice president for player development and Texas Southern alum, said during a roster reveal for the event on MLB Network, was excited that Black college baseball players would be recognized at one of the game’s showcase event.
Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr., who led the way in the creation of the HBCU game, said the event gives players “an opportunity for these guys to be seen.”
The connection that Junior has to Seattle is, of course, deep and forever, given the magic he displayed since he first teamed with his father in his 1990 debut to become the only father-son duo in major league history to not only play together, but to hit back-to-back home runs in a memorable game in Anaheim, to his sprint around the bases to score the winning run in a frenetic 11th inning comeback that led to the Mariners’ first-ever postseason series win (and deny Don Mattingly in his only shot at one), to his hundreds of home runs and thrilling moments that will, naturally, justify his presence as one of the game’s ambassadors and honorees (along with his ex-teammate and MLB Network broadcaster Harold Reynolds). But, moreover, it is his connection to the history and legacy of black baseball players, and an opportunity to showcase many that even scouts wouldn’t necessarily be aware of, in a city that has been as historically progressive and inclusive as Seattle (as well as a national audience) that is particularly inspiring.
In a thoughtful AP article authored by Tim Booth, Junior reflected on what motivated him to push for this game:
“It’s all about trying to get seen. I mean, if I can give an opportunity for a kid, one kid, two kids, three kids to be seen, how many kids can that be over the next five, 10, 15 years?” Griffey said. “How many lives will that one person change? That’s all we’re trying to do.”
The event was an idea generated by Griffey, fostered into reality with help from MLB and comes at a time when U.S.-born Black representation in the majors is at its lowest level since tracking began more than 30 years ago. A recent study from The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport at Central Florida found Black U.S. players represented just 6.2% of players on MLB opening day rosters, down from last year’s previous record low of 7.2%. There wasn’t a single HBCU alum on a major league roster on opening day this season, either.
Junior was once one of those kids himself, albeit one with a bit more opportunity to connect with players than many others. His dad was a teammate of Joe Morgan and competed against Hank Aaron, Willie Mays and Frank Robinson. As a Hall of Famer, he got to know all of them, and many others. And, of course, he has crossed paths with Jackie Robinson’s widow Rachel. But with the exception of her (now 100) and Mays (92 and in decline), those icons are now gone. All the more reason the timing and venue for this kickoff to a magical five days is all the more welcome.
Junior is matter-of-fact about exactly how much real opportunity for future professionals will come from this game, as the HBC piece concluded:
Griffey acknowledged not every player in the contest will end up being drafted or playing Major League Baseball. But he offered a reminder that there are other opportunities to still be involved in the sport.
“You can always stay in the game that you love and help the next generation,” Griffey said.
(Andre) Dawson and Ken Griffey Sr. will be among the coaches for the teams, as will plenty of HBCU alumni who reached the Majors, including Southern great Rickie Weeks, Marquis Grissom and Vince Coleman. Former Major League managers Jerry Manuel and Bo Porter will manage the teams.
And as that iconic theme from the little-remembered 60s TV show HERE COMES THE BRIDES (now more familiar as a rally song for the hugely popular Seattle Sounders MLS team) warbles, anyone who shows up, out of curiosity and/or solidarity, will be more than welcomed.
Like a beautiful child
Growing up, free and wild.
Full of hopes and full of fears,
Full of laughter, full of tears,
Full of dreams to last a year
And some really cool people will be with you in spirit.