WORDS: Kara Chalmers
PICTURES: Whitney Patton
In Major League Baseball today, African Americans represent just 7.5 percent of players. This is the lowest percentage ever recorded in the 29-year history of the Racial and Gender Report Card for the MLB, which The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport release every year.
But two Palmetto natives, one a former Major Leaguer, want to reverse this trend, by helping to expose African American kids to baseball, and to train them to play.
“Any minority player looking to play baseball, we’re looking for those players,” said Logan Wells, who co-owns 1st Round Training with former New York Met Lastings Milledge. “It doesn’t matter your income, your skill level, or whether you’ve even played before. We want to get more inner-city kids playing baseball.”
Wells and Milledge, lifelong friends turned business partners, opened 1st Round Training about two years ago. Their aim is to give kids the opportunity to learn and play the game, to get in front of scouts, and to earn baseball scholarships for college. They give financial aid to families who need it — about 30 percent of their current players. So far, the two have given 500 free lessons to kids in Manatee County.
“You should never not be able to play this great game based on the fact that you can’t afford it,” Wells said. “We want to give every single kid an opportunity, no matter what their financial situation might be. We’ve never cut a player, whatever their skill level.”
It all started with Hurricane Irma in Sept. 2017. Wells and his wife Ashley (as well as their two 100-pound dogs) left their waterfront home in Palmetto to stay for five days with Milledge and his wife Depree, who at that time lived inland in Apollo Beach.
Milledge and Wells were surfing the Internet when they came across a video of an African American high school senior in Hattiesburg, Mississippi named Kameron Wells (no relation to Logan Wells), who intrigued them both with his remarkable swing.
“He was an inner-city kid, but his talent level was what caught my eye, more than his background,” Milledge said.
Milledge reached out to the boy and offered his help. He flew to Mississippi four times to train him, for free, and also brought him to a showcase so scouts could watch him play. Kameron, now 21, currently attends Miami Dade College on a baseball scholarship.
After helping Kameron, Milledge knew he wanted to keep helping kids play baseball, particularly minority and inner-city kids. He wanted to do it in his own hometown. He and Wells opened 1st Round that December and kids come from as far away as Fort Myers, Clearwater, and Orlando — and have been as young as two years old — to train there.
At first it was just private lessons, but 1st Round eventually added a traveling team, called the 1st Round Diamonds, with five divisions, from eight and under to 18 and under.
The team travels to tournaments twice a month. Practices are held all year — except for August and December — two nights a week, both at the Manatee County Police Athletic League baseball fields in Bradenton, as well as at 1st Round’s 2,500-square-foot facility with batting cages and turf, located inside the Ellenton Ice and Sports Complex.
It’s not just practice 1st Round provides. More importantly, it offers top-level coaching and mentoring from someone who’s “been there,” someone who’s an example of how hard work can pay off, someone who knows how to train players like they’re in the Major Leagues.
Milledge, 35, was named the best 16-year-old in the United States when he played at Lakewood Ranch High School. The New York Mets drafted him in the first round of the 2003 draft when Milledge was 18. He was the 12th overall pick.
In 2006, Milledge made his Major League debut, and over the course of his career, he played for the Washington Nationals, Pittsburg Pirates and Chicago White Sox.
Milledge played in Japan for four seasons before 2017, when he played his last season of professional baseball for the independent league, the Lancaster Barnstormers. That was when Hurricane Irma hit, and life took him in a new direction.
Both Milledge and Wells, who played baseball for Palmetto High School and for Hillsborough Community College, know what they’re talking about when they guide 1st Round’s players in matters of baseball and life. They teach their players to respect their teammates and coaches and to be humble. Bat-throwing, or other examples of a bad attitude are not acceptable. Wells and Milledge work hard and expect the same from their players.
“They’re great with the kids,” said Jen Hoch, referring to her two children and their teammates. She said the players adore Milledge and Wells. “Our kids would literally be here seven days a week.”
Hoch, while watching a scrimmage with other parents on a recent Wednesday, noted that the coaches go to players’ birthday parties, and take them out fishing or golfing.
“They treat the kids like they’re their own,” Hoch said. “Pretty much if you’re in their organization, you’re like family.”
One member of the 1st Round “family” is Eric Gonzalez, 17, who has loved baseball his whole life. “I’ve always been a baseball fan,” he said. “I always practiced in my backyard.” His mother and father grew up playing the game in Puerto Rico. It’s in his blood. “It’s always been baseball,” he said.
However, it wasn’t until Gonzalez made the Palmetto High School team his junior year that he got to play. When he was younger, his parents couldn’t afford the multitude of expenses that come along with recreational baseball — equipment, team fees, travel expenses, uniforms, cleats.
A friend introduced Gonzalez, now a senior, to 1st Round. He joined about a year ago and is currently the starting catcher for 1st Round’s 18 and under team.
Gonzalez appreciates the opportunities Wells and Milledge have given him.
“They gave me a chance,” he said. “They helped me out financially. I love this organization.” To Gonzalez, Wells and Milledge are more than just coaches.
“You can call them up at any time of day and they’re there to help you,” he said. “They showed me ways of the game I didn’t even know existed, like how to play the game mentally and be ready for any situation, to plan for the future.”
Gonzalez is hoping to get a baseball scholarship to college. But if that doesn’t happen, his backup plan is to find a local league. “Anything to keep a number on my back,” he said.