By BRETT MARTEL, AP Sports Writer
NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Hall of Famer Andre Dawson sees elements of his own story in the black college players converging in New Orleans this week for a tournament sponsored, promoted and broadcast nationally by Major League Baseball.
Before Dawson’s two-decade career with the Montreal Expos and Chicago Cubs, he was a walk-on at Florida A&M. Scouts who’d been watching Dawson “disappeared” after his knee injury in high school, he recalled, but enrolling at a Historically Black College or University helped him keep playing.
“That’s what these programs do,” Dawson said, adding that HBCUs like his alma mater “were the ones that really extended me that opportunity.”
There’s one considerable difference between now and the early 1970s, however. The talent pool from which black college programs primarily recruit has shrunk as football and basketball have grown in popularity, particularly in urban areas.
As part of an effort the address that, MLB has sponsored a now decade-old tournament designed to highlight HBCU baseball programs, hoping to lure young black athletes back to the sport of Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays and Hank Aaron.
The tournament has yet to feature a single player who wound up in the big leagues, but MLB shows no signs of reducing its investment in the event — or in the urban youth academies around the country that are meant to provide inner-city youth with year-round places to train and play.
Last week, the tournament formally known as the Urban Invitational was renamed the Andre Dawson Classic. This weekend, it’ll feature six HBCUs: Alabama State, Alcorn State, Arkansas-Pine Bluff, Grambling State, Prairie View A&M and Southern. The University of New Orleans, which is helping to host the event with the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy, also will play, along with Illinois-Chicago.
For now, the tournament’s legacy is embodied by former HBCU players such as Earl Burl, who played for Alcorn State and did some of his training at the New Orleans MLB Youth Academy. He was a 30th-round draft choice by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2015. He spent two years in Toronto’s minor league system, followed by a short stint in an independent league. Now, he’s involved in a MLB fellowship program training him for a potential front-office career.
Burl asserts that the tournament changed his life.
“If you have a great game, it’s going to be seen by somebody,” Burl said. “A lot of scouts…