Ken Griffey Junior’s Swingman Classic offers HBCU players a chance to take center-stage

SEATTLE — For the first time ever at this year’s MLB All-Star festivities, baseball players from Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) are taking centerstage in a showcase game of a different kind.

The inaugural HBCU Swingman Classic launched by Mariners’ great Ken Griffey Jr. leads off the MLB All-Star festivities Friday night.

Check out the full list of All-Star events here

For decades some of baseball’s greatest players were not seen by the general public in the Negro Leagues. Black ballplayers were cheered by segregated audiences and went ignored by the rest of the country. History did ultimately highlight the Negro Leagues, but this year MLB and Mariners’ great Ken Griffey Jr. are making sure some of the game’s current HBCU greats are truly seen.

“My dad gave back to baseball -- it’s now my turn,” Griffey Jr. told Harold Reynolds during a recent interview on MLB Network.

For Griffey, it’s a chance to give a level of exposure rarely afforded to HBCUs.

”Let these guys have an opportunity to play at the highest level and get drafted,” Griffey said.

Jean Lee Batrus, of the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation, spoke to KIRO 7 about the game, calling it, “the ultimate All-Star Game during All-Star Week for 50 top Division 1 HBCU players.”

First pitch for the game will be at 7:42 PM -- ‘42′ in honor of Jackie Robinson the man that broke baseball’s color barrier. Batrus says the players from the HBCUs will also break free from relative baseball anonymity.

“We need kids across the country to see these kids and say, ‘you know what, that player looks like me,” she said.

Plenty of Major Leaguers have played at HBCUs too. Hall of Famer Andre Dawson played for Florida A&M, former MLB second baseman Rickie Weeks played at Southern University in Baton Rouge, LA, the list goes on.

Omari Salisbury of Converge Media has been promoting the game, and as an alum of an HBCU himself, he says the atmosphere will be unique.

“They’re uplifting something to a national level that is oftentimes overlooked,” he described. “There’s a lot of talent that’s in the HBCUS… if you went to a black college, black college homecoming is big! It’s that sense of homecoming.”

“And Seattle’s never had a black college homecoming,” he added. “We don’t have a black college here, so there’s an extra layer on top of the game.”

Ken Griffey Jr. will be in the dugouts with the college players, and the Mariners’ own Dave Sims will call the game. The game (which will be played each year during the All-Star break moving forward) is only one part. Players will also attend career workshops, and HBCUs will have a college fair to highlight their schools in Seattle.

Salisbury says the impact of the game will be felt across the city.

“Seattle’s black community is excited!” he said.

The Negro Leagues may have faded from history, but competing at T-Mobile park while being featured on MLB Network will guarantee that HBCU players continue a grand tradition of black players in baseball, with a spotlight like no other.

Batrus says the impact will be felt beyond the diamond.

“It’s not just about baseball, but offering them the ultimate All-Star experience,” she said.

For Griffey, he hopes the game inspires players at HBCUs to stick with baseball.

“You can always stay in the game you love and help the next generation, and that’s what we want to do,” he said.

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