ACE behind the plate: Diversifying MLB's catching pipeline


White Sox ACE coach David Reed spiked another baseball into the ground just beyond home plate.

One at a time his catchers rotated through, blocking the dirt balls with their gloves, chest protectors, forearms. Anything that would keep the ball in front of them – and in a real game, give them the best chance to keep a baserunner from taking advantage of the pitcher’s mistake.

Through the drill, and the next, and the next, Reed wore his own catcher’s leg guards.

“The main thing I do with my guys, just so they understand that I don't accept the excuse of what you can and can't do, is I put my catcher's equipment on with them," Reed said in a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago, "and every drill that I put them through, I do it with them at some point time.”

Reed works with catchers throughout the White Sox ACE (Amateur City Elite) program and has coached teams in several age groups, including 12-and-under this year. And within that work, he’s on a mission that would touch all of baseball.

“With my guys, I hope that they can one day be the next catcher to go on and play in Major League Baseball, Black catcher or not,” Reed said. “But we have the main focus on putting the next Black catcher into MLB.”

It’s been almost two decades since MLB catcher Charles Johnson retired in 2005, and in that time no other Black American has served as an MLB team’s everyday catcher.

Reed draws a connection to the NFL, another league with a history of stacking, or funneling athletes into specific position groups based on racial stereotypes. The practice pushed Black athletes away from central and leadership positions, like catcher or quarterback.

Enter 2019, which ESPN’s The Undefeated dubbed “the year of the Black quarterback.” Twelve Black quarterbacks combined to start 138 games, setting a record with the latter figure. In the same season, Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson won the MVP and Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes won the Super Bowl.

“That's what the catcher is on the football field, you’re the quarterback,” Reed said. “So, if their game can change … and those men and those kids are being given an opportunity to be leaders as Black quarterbacks, for our kids catching, it’s the same thing. All we need is the opportunity. Every time they give an opportunity, (our kids) excel.”

Reed, a Simeon alumnus, grew up in Chicago. He went on to play NCAA Division I baseball at Alcorn State University.

“When I came back to Chicago,” Reed said, “I came home looking for something that I could do in the inner cities to give back, as far as helping young men and the game of baseball.”

About a decade ago, he found the ACE program, which the White Sox created in 2007 to develop young ballplayers in underserved communities and boost their exposure for college recruitment and scouting. According to the White Sox charities website, over 230 ACE participants have earned college scholarships, and 27 have been drafted by MLB clubs.

“Coach Dave, he's always taught me, make practice hard so when the game comes, it becomes really easy for you,” said ACE catcher Ricky Collazo, 17. “And that's always worked for me. He says, always make mistakes in practice so you look perfect behind the plate when you're in the game.”

Said fellow catcher Sir Jamison Jones, 15: “He's taught me how to really take control of the position and be a leader on the field, especially when it comes to keeping your pitchers calm and helping in your infield, putting people in place where they should be with certain batters. It's just a bigger role than what people think it is. More than just catching the ball. It’s about being a leader.”

The catchers meet with Reed every week for position-specific instruction, honing their throw downs to bases, framing and blocking. One infamous blocking drill involves resistance bands and traveling between lines on a basketball court. That combination of strength, endurance and skill work makes it a favorite for some players and quite the opposite for others.

“The catcher, you have to be agile,” said ACE catcher Brandon Stinson, 15. “You have to be locked in from start to finish. You don't get any breaks. And then that's also the fun part of it, because the ball is always in your hands."

That aspect of the position, being in charge, the quarterback on the field, was what drew Reed to the position, too. And though his playing days are over, he hasn’t hung up his catcher’s gear. He needs it to work right beside the players he sees so much potential in.

“Our kids have to have the mindset and not think, ‘Oh, I can't do this because I don't see it,’” Reed said. “Because you can be the kid that the kid behind you sees at some point in time. So, don't worry about what you don't see. Worry about what it is that you're determined to do.”

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