MLB, UNINTERRUPTED chronicle path to pros for Black baseball prospects
High school standouts get the documentary treatment in two-part series ‘New Wave: Baseball’s Next Generation’
In the coming months, high school seniors across America will walk into the world unsure of what the next step of their lives holds. Some will be fortunate enough to get an opportunity to continue their education, some will head into the workforce, others will make the tough choice to help defend the country, and the truly lucky ones might just take a year or two to figure their lives out.
When you’re a star high school baseball player, however, that choice is often made for you. Yet, paradoxically, you hope to make the right one yourself.
This week, UNINTERRPUTED and MLB collaborated to release New Wave: Baseball’s Next Generation, a two-part series about the lives of four top prep athletes on the diamond, as they juggle the difficult decision of how to best pursue their dreams. Each episode is a half-hour, with unprecedented behind-the-scenes looks at not only their lives but draft process itself, the production follows four players: Termarr Johnson, Justin Crawford, Jayson Jones and R.J. Austin.
If you’ve never heard these names, you’re likely not alone. If you’ve got any remote interest in youth baseball and have done so much as sniff the showcase circuit in the past four years, they are household names. Executive produced by LeBron James, Maverick Carter, C.C. Sabathia, Amber Sabathia and Nick Trotta (producer of 42 and Moneyball), the docuseries is an engrossing, yet easy-to-digest project that will teach the average baseball fan quite a bit about how the process of getting from preps to the bigs, actually works.
Most certainly, it can be a lonely world. The grind of travel ball isn’t easy, by any means. Then, after exhausting your family’s energy and resources to stand out, if you’re good enough to get drafted out of high school, you have a choice to make. A legit cost-benefit analysis of shipping your life off to small town USA to chase a dream. If you go to college, you had better hope you’re going to play, because you won’t get another shot at the draft for three years. Don’t even get me started about junior colleges.
Depending on your development, any or all of these choices can be staggering and overwhelming. Never mind if you’re a Black player.
There’s something that wasn’t lost on anyone involved, in terms of how or why they even undertook this project to begin with: The sports media world is now awash with documentaries and series that serve as a way to buttress sports content. Think Drive to Survive for Formula One racing or Hard Knocks for the NFL.
With baseball clamoring for ways to stay relevant and return to whatever level of cool it once had, Sabathia and James said why not when producer Jackson New-Smith pitched the idea of following the best and brightest for their own version of a showcase. If people who want to like baseball are constantly clamoring for more faces, more personality and more charisma, why not just show them?
The series really puts you inside the high stakes world of athletes as commodities: evaluations, measurables, makeup, expectations, all of it. An honest truth about the bonds you can make as friends, young men and community when trying to be the one who gets picked highest. If you know what happens at the end, so to speak, it doesn’t make it any less dramatic. There’s an argument that if you know going in where all these guys end up, it’s even better.
“I always had fun and everything like that, but obviously my goal was to be a professional baseball player and a big leaguer at one point throughout my whole life,” Taylor Trammell said Tuesday from spring training. The Seattle Mariners outfielder, who was featured in New Wave, recalled how much of a blur it all was. “But when they started to come along and they were like, ‘you’re possibly [getting drafted in the] first 10 rounds’ and then later on in my senior year I started to get ‘it’s looking like the first three rounds’ and then going into near the draft it was, like, first round, all that hit me kind of fast. It was interesting because I wasn’t expecting it to happen that quickly, if that makes sense.”
Trammell, who made his MLB debut in 2021, had an easy decision. He was committed to Georgia Tech, a program that’s sent a large number of players to the pros, but when the Cincinnati Reds picked him at 35th overall in the draft, they came correct with the cash and that was that.
“For me, that’s where I was like, I had to grow up fast. It wasn’t like, I have this amount of time to. It was like, you’re going to Billings, Montana, in the next week. Make sure you’re ready for that, and that’s where I was like, I got to grow up. It’s not high school anymore. This is the real world.”
Who was set with completing the tall task of capturing this experience in its truest essence? A white guy who’d never made a documentary before. But he was a ballplayer and, as they say, a real one.
New Wave director Matt Paré is familiar with the real world and the baseball one. You might remember his series Tales of A Homeless Minor Leaguer where he chronicled what life was life in the bus leagues with a comedic and informative behind-the-scenes bent.
A catcher at Boston College, he had no plans to finish school. It was baseball or bust. But it didn’t exactly work out like that. A couple of decent seasons and a knee injury later, he did make it to the pro ranks, where he played in the minors for five seasons.
All that’s to say that when it came to tackling the baseball struggle part, he knew how to show what the game looks like from the inside. For the other part, he just trusted the people in front of him.
“This was my first doc thing, so I really leaned on people who had done that in the past. Just because you lived through an experience doesn’t necessarily mean that you know how to tell that story. And especially with these being four Black baseball players too, I wanted to make sure that … Like I’m a white guy, right?” Paré noted, with all the chill of a guy who was an ACC catcher. “I’m telling their stories in the most authentic ways possible and making sure that … Have the right crew, showing cuts to the right people and making sure that I’m like, I’m using their voices saying the particular things that speak to their experiences.
“So I think letting those conversations drive that aspect, that part of the story of them being Black. Because that’s not something that I have lived experience with, but I can relate on the draft stuff.”
The question of how these kids might handle the pressure of documentary cams might seem Pollyannish, especially a generation of humans who are perpetually watching and being watched. But establishing trust is still exactly that. And for some players, scrutiny is not always the best motivational tactic.
“I think they’re built for it,” Taylor said. “Social media is an all-time high right now with just the content that these guys are bringing to the table. Every year there’s always a few guys where it’s like, this guy’s going to be good in the next few years. This guy’s going to be a god. I think it’s helpful for them. I think they’re built for it if they have the right people around them because the only thing that’s helping with is just their exposure because in the next seven years, they’re most likely going to be the faces of their teams.”
They might be built for it, but the stars of this show are the people who made them.
“He’s amazing. A mom’s dream.”
In the first episode, Keanya Jones is talking about her son R.J. while he’s handing out equipment from The Players Alliance to little kids coming to his free baseball clinic for the day. She’s rocking her Vanderbilt sweatshirt because she’s getting ready to head to Nashville, Tennessee, to see her son play. The college life has clearly already paid off.
“And now he’s cleaning up his room. That never was a strong suit of his, but I see that he’s keeping his space clean,” Jones said. “When he came home for the break, he’s picking up behind himself. I’m like, ‘Who is this young man?’ ”
In all seriousness, his upbringing was as intentional as anything she’s ever done.
“He’s always been a car rider, didn’t ride the bus. So, we spent a lot of time together. So, that’s why our relationship, we’re so close,” Jones said. “Every day before he got out of the car, we’d say to him, ‘Be the best you. Be the best you.’
“After a move to a new district in the Atlanta area, life’s demographics were a little different. Part of that is for others to see because not only is R.J. Black, he’s dark-skinned, very coarse hair, from the city, so very urban. So, letting other cultures see how he is, and embracing that, because we get a bad stereotype. Young Black men in the city life, they get a bad rap. So, I think R.J. showed them otherwise.”
The presumption is different than the reality for many of us. Which is why when you see these guys interacting with each other and making kids’ days, you realize exactly why you’re watching the series at all. These guys are fantastic. Plain and simple. And, yes, they’re all friends.
“He loves those guys, especially I would say specifically Termarr. They’ve been friends since they played, I think 4 or 5 years old. So, he’s very close to the family. We’re close to the family. They root for each other all day long,” Jones said.
Johnson is a kid whose “it” factor is obvious. He doesn’t have to touch a baseball for you to know that. His mom is quite polite but knows the star power element of her son’s appeal after he was picked fourth overall in 2022. His energy is always there, it shows in the series and certainly if you ever see him at the diamond.
“There’s a Scripture that says to whom much is given, much is required, and that’s just what he’s walking in. God’s given him an awesome ability and awesome opportunity, and he just has a requirement to walk into that and to walk into it the right way,” Kim Johnson said last week. “He’s got to learn. He’s got to learn when not to push himself. He’s so driven that he’s got to learn that sometimes you’ve got to pull back on your drive. He’ll figure it out.”
Johnson’s selection was part of a huge day for Black baseball overall, with four of the top five picks being Black Americans. One of the guys who got picked that day was Justin Crawford. Son of former Major Leaguer Carl Crawford, he’s part of a separate, even more select fraternity of Black sons of big leaguers.
His mother, Amy Freeman, is right by his side through the whole draft. She’s still mystified by the whirlwind of that day — the path of her son turning from the man who wanted to be just like his dad to the man he had become, walking across the stage as the 17th overall pick of the Philadelphia Phillies.
“It was a very surreal experience. It was very eye-opening, just in terms of the production of it all. Everything that goes on behind the scenes. And then you have the athlete that has their own kind of little world,” Freeman explained. “It was very almost baffling, and eye-opening, and exhilarating, and a roller coaster. All of that stuff all wrapped up in one. I think for me as a mom, it was difficult for me to stay in the moment, because I was trying to be there with Justin.”
One family who wasn’t there was the Joneses. Kim’s son, Jayson, has been compared with New York Yankees outfielder Aaron Judge, but ultimately had to make the hard decision to stick with his college plans at Arkansas instead of the MLB draft. In one of the more harrowing scenes of the series, you sit in the family’s living room with them while they wait for his name. And keep waiting. It’s as heartbreaking as it gets.
Just like the other three families, the decision even to be a part of the documentary at all was a brave one. But considering how fresh that feeling is in real time, it’s still their lives. They wanted it to happen on their terms, considering how much has already been said about them.
“We’ve a very typical American family. I mean, I work a lot of hours,” Jones said. She reminds me that her son only played for two travel programs and wasn’t all over the place. It just wasn’t an option.
“We’re middle-class at best, and so I think we represent probably closer to the majority of people playing, right now, this game. Obviously, I would love if my husband would’ve made it to the pros and gave me millions of dollars, but we didn’t and that’s OK. We have a great life and I think Jayson has a story. I don’t know what it is yet. He’s still writing it, but I want us to tell it.”
New Wave is a great watch for documentary and baseball fans. There are some blast from the past faces and it reminds you of that one time the NBA and MLB had an actual organic crossover pop culture moment when James popped up and flexed after Rajai Davis’ game-tying home run for Cleveland in Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
Who knows, the show could spark a run in Black storytelling from players we haven’t seen in forever. While the heroes of the past have their place in every discussion, at some point, if we want to bring people to the game, the folks actually playing are equally important.
Or, the show might be able to achieve an even larger goal.
“There’s so many talented Black athletes out there, I think that’s pretty cool that they will actually put the spotlight out there,” Freeman said. “It’s rather daring, even. I think that this will be a big inspiration to a lot of other Black and brown boys and girls out there [to say], ‘Come on. You could do this, too. If nothing else, ride the wave.’ ”