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Florida A&M players, alums stand out at HBCU Swingman Classic

Hall of Famer and alum Andre Dawson among those representing Rattlers in Seattle

SEATTLE — There were nothing but clear skies in the Pacific Northwest before the historic start of the HBCU Swingman Classic.

The game featured 50 handpicked Division I players from historically Black colleges and universities for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play in the inaugural game, spearheaded by Baseball Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. and sponsored by the MLB-MLBPA Youth Development Foundation. The players collectively represented 17 HBCUs. The game was the first major event of the MLB All-Star week.

The classic had a Florida A&M presence on each roster. Shortstop Jalen Niles, outfielder Ty Jackson and pitcher Hunter Viets represented Rattlers on the American League squad coached by Jerry Manuel. Senior catcher Ty Hanchey and outfielder Janmikell Bastardo were the Rattlers on the National League roster coached by Bo Porter.

Niles displayed his immense talent throughout the weekend of activities. His play was electric during the game and helped the American League team to a 4-3 victory.

Hall of Famer Andre Dawson, who played at FAMU from 1972-75, threw out the ceremonial first pitch to Vince Coleman, who played for FAMU and the Seattle Mariners. Former major leaguer Marquis Grissom was also among the FAMU alums who attended the game.

“I was really, really excited that it played out that way,” Dawson said, referring to the FAMU attendance. Dawson is the only living Hall of Fame player who attended an HBCU. “Not only is it an honor but it’s a no-brainer for me, when looking at the circumstances.”

Hall of Famer Andre Dawson looks on during the HBCU Swingman Classic at T-Mobile Park on July 7 in Seattle.

Liv Lyons/MLB Photos via Getty Images

A native of Miami, Dawson had several knee injuries in high school before joining the FAMU team as a walk-on. He worked hard to become a starter and earn a scholarship. Because of the opportunities that FAMU gave him, the school holds a special place in Dawson’s heart.

“The three years that I was there [Florida A&M], I wouldn’t trade it,” Dawson said.

He was emphatic about sharing his knowledge of life and baseball to the current Rattlers trying to follow in his footsteps.

“What was most important to me was them sitting on the bench and asking questions … and you being able to help them in that manner,” Dawson said.

Although Dawson’s FAMU team played in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference — FAMU joined the Southwestern Athletic Conference in 2021 — the same success experienced during his tenure is no different from this year’s ballclub.

The Rattlers baseball team, coming off a SWAC championship in late May, showcased its prowess early in the Swingman Classic. Jackson was a late add to the roster but proved to be one of the biggest players Friday. The outfielder was the first player to steal a base and score a run in the game.

“It was a blessing,” said Jackson. “Now my name goes at the top of the history books … first one to score at the Swingman Classic and I have to thank God.”

Jackson hinted at what being afforded this grand experience on the game’s largest stage meant not only for all the selected HBCU players, but also to him personally.

“We finally got to experience what it felt like to be a major league player,” he said. “With the atmosphere here, with them feeding us in the clubhouse and getting to hang out with the guys, it’s been a glorified to God blessing all around these past two days.”

Third base coach James Cooper (left) greets Florida A&M outfielder Ty Jackson (center) during the HBCU Swingman Classic at T-Mobile Park on July 7 in Seattle.

Jorden Dixon/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Whether it’s Power 5 programs overshadowing them or stereotypes that persist about playing against lesser competition, there’s been a disconnect between pro teams mining HBCUs for players. North Carolina A&T pitcher Xavier Meachem became the first HBCU player selected in the 2023 MLB draft Monday when the Miami Marlins picked him in the 10th round (293rd overall).

Niles believes HBCU baseball programs can produce talent that can play alongside any other school, no matter the amount of funding the athletic program generates.

“We just wanted to prove that we can go out there and compete with the best of the best,” he said.

Arlington, Texas, and the Texas Rangers will host next year’s Midsummer Classic. While the Swingman Classic is in its infancy, Niles said he is looking ahead to next year and even greater possibilities for FAMU.

“Hopefully next year we can have some more guys here, as well as me and Ty,” he said.

Lawrence Goss, a 2024 Rhoden Fellow and senior broadcast journalism major who hails from Atlanta, has worked as an anchor at Rattler Take, the school’s news platform. He holds an active leadership role with three on-campus organizations and serves as the lead sports editor for the school's newspaper, The Famuan.