Jerry Manuel had dreamed of a moment like this. Last month, for the first time in MLB history, he watched four Black players go in the first five picks of the MLB draft: Druw Jones, Kumar Rocker, Termarr Johnson and Elijah Green. It felt like a monumental step after years of hard work by Manuel and plenty of others to grow the game and change the sport's culture.
Throughout his playing and coaching career in major league baseball -- which included winning a Manager of the Year award with the Chicago White Sox in 2000 -- Manuel had watched the number of Black players decline, from the youth levels up to the big leagues.
"We keep trying to change the game, but we're losing a culture," Manuel said. "We were losing an important piece of the game if we're not participating in it."
That drew Manuel to join the coaching staff of the DREAM Series, an invite-only showcase hosted by Major League Baseball that gives elite high school Black players from across America a chance to perform in front of college and pro baseball evaluators. The annual event, which began in 2017, takes place over Martin Luther King Jr. weekend at Arizona's Tempe Diablo Stadium, spring training home of the Los Angeles Angels. The program has already found success with major leaguers such as Cincinnati Reds pitcher Hunter Greene, who participated in the inaugural series. This year, it is bearing more fruit than ever, with the drafting of Jones, Rocker, Johnson and Green -- each of whom played in the DREAM Series.
"It takes time to develop and for things to happen the right way," said MLB vice president of baseball development Del Matthews, who is Black. "We're just pouring into these kids with the right kind of staff and the right mentality and opportunities for the young kids. It's starting to pay dividends."
Manuel got involved with MLB's diversity efforts starting in 2012 and has helped lead the DREAM Series coaching staff since its inception in 2017. Before the 2022 season, only 7.2% of players on Opening Day rosters were Black, down from 7.6% in 2021 and 18.7% in 1981. Manuel witnessed that change firsthand, and saw the cost of youth baseball rise over the years as showcase events and travel ball became the predominant way to get players in front of pro and college scouts -- making the expense prohibitive for many families.
Programs such as the DREAM Series counteract that trend, giving teams an opportunity to see players they otherwise might miss on the travel and showcase circuits.
"We're missing pieces right now," Manuel said. "We're missing Willie Mays. We're missing Hank Aaron. We're missing Ozzie Smith. We're missing all of those guys. We got to find that and we have to go find those pieces. Those pieces haven't historically come from the affluent so let's go see where they are. Let's go see where they are."
Manuel also wants to help teach young players about the history of the game and its ties to the history of Black Americans, and help give young Black players a safe space where they don't feel isolated.
"What I've noticed is that when they all get here, that number of Black athletes get in one place, there is a freedom to play the game of baseball," Manuel said. "There is a kinship for one another."
Additionally, Matthews said the key to the program's success is the opportunity to expose young Black players to high-level experience from MLB veterans such as Manuel, Houston Astros manager Dusty Baker, Atlanta Braves coach Ron Washington and LaTroy Hawkins, who pitched in the majors for 21 years.
"Jerry Manuel feels like this is a calling on his life and giving back and leading our coaching staff," Matthews said. "Our coaching staff cares and are giving their time to come in and help and generate baseball as a generational sport, so that the process continues to happen year over year."
The players recognize how the DREAM Series has played a major role in their success.
"All of my success, everything I've gone through in my life," Johnson said on MLB Network after being drafted fourth overall by the Pittsburgh Pirates, "I give it all to the DREAM Series and those MLB pipelines."
And while Manuel takes pride in seeing more Black players drafted after coming through the DREAM Series, he says his main motivation is developing young men with character who love baseball, even if they don't end up pursuing a career in the industry as a player.
"We take little, little steps," Manuel said. "This is the [Jackie] Robinson Way. Citizenship, integrity. This is going to help you in life. Everybody in here is not gonna play at the highest level, but that doesn't mean it's the end of people in baseball. You might make it to the front office 'cause you know the game. I want to make the game better. My culture is missing from it, and I gotta do something about that. Whoever comes, we will take care of them."