Breakthrough Series gives stage to urban youths

By R. Cory Smith

CARY, N.C. -- Hard work, dedication and athleticism are all attributes that a baseball player needs to excel, but without an opportunity to be seen, that player won't be able to take the next step to the college or professional level.

For the past five years, Major League Baseball and USA Baseball have worked together to give high school players from urban areas just that -- a chance to showcase their talents against other great players.

"I've taken in a whole lot at this point," Southern Durham High School pitcher Larry Stephens said. "I know a lot of guys who would kill for this opportunity. The coaches and instructors are doing everything they can to work us to our full potential."

The Breakthrough Series is a three-day event that features 80 of the nation's top players from urban communities. Those 80 players are divvied up on four rosters and pitted against each other in facilities like the Durham Bulls Athletic Park in Durham, N.C., and the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary.

With the players coming from urban areas, most of the invited athletes have not been given the stage to be seen in travel or showcase tournaments.

For Stephens, the tournament gives him a sense of how his hard work has paid off.

"I always try to play my hardest, and getting to play here shows me that my best is good enough to get me these types of opportunities," Stephens said. "So I guess that makes me a pretty good ballplayer."

Along with the contributions of USA Baseball and MLB, the Major League Scouting Bureau also has representatives speaking to the players and coaches to help prepare them for the next level.

David Perkins, chief operating officer of USA Baseball, said the players are not the only people benefiting from the program.

"This is not just an opportunity for the players," Perkins said. "We have new umpires who are learning from professional umpires and coaches who have the opportunity to coach some of the top-caliber players in the nation. That's what really makes this whole program unique.

"Everyone here is getting hands-on experience and getting immediate feedback from people who've been in the business."

As for the effect the mentors have had on the players, Scotland High School pitcher Blake Bennett, who threw three innings for the Monarchs on Tuesday, said he has a better understanding of what he needs to be focusing on.

"Being able to understand how things are going to go at the next level means a lot," Bennett said. "And having guys who have been there makes it that much more believable."

The tournament consists of players who were selected by the Major League Scouting Bureau, the MLB Urban Youth Academy, USA Baseball, the Chicago White Sox and an Atlanta-based organization known as the Mentoring Viable Prospects (MVP) program.

Players have traveled from 21 different states, as well as Puerto Rico and Canada, to participate in the global event.

Perkins said that with the diversity of players, it gives them an opportunity to see what they need to improve upon.

"I really feel this gives chance to see where they stack up against other players at their level," Perkins said. "They also get to see where they need to work on and when they leave here, they really have a chance to see what skills they need to enhance in order to become an elite player.

"We certainly feel that when a player comes to play for USA Baseball that we send them away a better player."

Over the five-year span of the program, 77 of the nearly 220 participants have been selected in MLB's First-Year Player Draft, including three first-round picks in 2012. Addison Russell was selected 11th overall by the A's, Courtney Hawkins was taken 13th overall by the White Sox, and the Brewers picked Victor Roache 28th overall.

With that type of success, there's reason to believe that the event will only take off further -- especially with the talent of this year's crop, which several scouts said is the most talented they've seen at the event.

On the first day of games, Tuesday, the series' first contest, between the Stars and Stripes squads, saw the Stripes come out on top, 6-3, after a late-inning surge in the ninth inning that broke a 3-3 tie.

In the second game, the Giants and Monarchs finished in a 6-6 tie in a game that included two rain delays.

R. Cory Smith is a contributor to This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.