MLB-MLBPA YDF Executive Director Jean Lee Batrus Talks Supporting Baseball Players With Diverse Backgrounds (Exclusive)

MLB and MLBPA sponsor the Hank Aaron Invitational and Swingman Classic.

The annual Hank Aaron Invitational, named after late baseball legend Hank Aaron, took place at Truist Park, the home of the Atlanta Braves, on Sunday night, and 44 of the best high school baseball players took the field to showcase their talent for family, friends and pro scouts. What stands out with the event is that these players have diverse backgrounds and receive coaching from some notable Black baseball players wich as Marquis Grissom, Brian Hunter and Howie Kendrick. The Hank Aaron Invitational comes from the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation (YDF), and PopCulture.com spoke to the executive director Jean Lee Batrus at the event on Sunday. She explained why the organization wanted to be part of this event which begins in Florida at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Florida. 

"The Youth Development Foundation, since its inception, was founded on this mission of increasing access and reducing barriers to youth baseball and softball," Batrus told PopCulture. "We know how expensive it is to enter this space, and we feel that all kids deserve to play. Especially in underrepresented communities, where oftentimes access to our sport can be inaccessible locally, lack of fields, lack of equipment, and programming."

Around 250 players ages 13 to18 from all over the country received training from former MLB players and coaches at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in the first week. In Week 2, the top 44 players were invited to play in the game at Truist Park to celebrate "Hank Aaron Week." The two teams were Team Aaron and some of the players who stood out were Louisville commit Dennis Butler, LSU commit David Hogg, Donvan Jordan of Summer Creek High School in Humble, Texas and Florida International University commit Keenan Jabeth among others. 

The 44 players also got the learn the history of Atlanta which is known for being the heart of the civil rights movement. "Lots of excitement, enthusiasm, pride, to be able to come here and play on a major league field," Batrus said. "But more than that, seeing Martin Luther King's childhood home, going to the church where he preached at and learning about civil rights history. We had a wonderful luncheon with Mrs. Billye Aaron."

hank-aaron-invitational-city.jpg
(Photo: MLB-MLBPA)

Along with helping players showcase their talent on a national stage, the YDF also helps players and coaches financially. Batrus said they have given out over $27.25 million in grant money and about 300 grants in the past few years. Lee said anyone looking for a grant to go to their website (baseballydf.com) to find more information. 

"You can learn about a letter of inquiry," she said. "So it's a first step, very simple step of checking off, are any of these categories something that includes your project that we can support? If there's any questions, they can pick up the phone, they can email us. The next step is after we review the initial proposal with the documentation on the budget, we'll probably have an interview. And we know in this space how hard it is to grant write."

"Not everyone comes from a finance or a grant writing background. We're willing to hold their hand through those steps. And then if they're successful, they move into an application stage. And that's where the real homework is done. We have quarterly board meetings. We vote on these grants and we make a decision. And the grant's going to be as small as five-figure grants, up to seven-figure grants. And so there's no level support that is too small for us."

The YDF not only supports the Hank Aaron Invitational. Earlier this month during MLB All-Star Week, the inaugural HBU Swingman Classic took place at T-Mobile Park, the home of the Seattle Mariners. 50 HBCU baseball players took place in the game powered by the YDF and hosted by Hall of Fame Ken Griffey Jr. who is a YDF ambassador. 

HBCU Swingman Classic presented by T-Mobile
(Photo:

SEATTLE, WASHINGTON – JULY 07: Randy Flores #1 of Alabama State University poses with other players after winning the MVP award during the HBCU Swingman Classic at T-Mobile Park on July 07, 2023 in Seattle, Washington.

- Qwest Courtney / Getty Images)

"We are extremely proud that we can elevate HBCU Division One baseball programs," Batrus said. "They've often been overlooked, and they are strong. And what was amazing is the energy that we had in Seattle in our inaugural event, which will return to every All-Star Week in the future."

"We had fraternities and sororities from HBCUs, we had alumni, we had all these fans. And so galvanizing this energy during this first event is only going to propel us into the future. But also having it broadcasted. Our excitement is there's young kids across the country who are underrepresented watching this game and saying, 'Wow, Ken Griffey. Jr., Dave Winfield, Marquis Grissom, Andre Dawson.' The list is so rich of fantastic players who came from HBCUs and are paying it forward in coaching these young scholar-athletes. So for us, this is an important point in history in being able to pivot and to grow our game."