BROOKLYN, N.Y. -- When former Major League pitcher John Halama was growing up here, playing his high school ball at Bishop Ford Central Catholic before moving on to St. Francis University, nobody from the pro ranks really came to see him. He's pretty sure the Houston Astros scout who signed him did so off word of mouth.
"If someone saw you, someone saw you," Halama said. "We didn't have stuff like this going on to showcase ourselves."
"This" is the 2014 Breakthrough Series, a regional showcase co-hosted by Major League Baseball and USA Baseball in four locations around the country, including MCU Park -- home of the Brooklyn Cyclones, a Mets affiliate -- on Sunday and Monday. About 30 high school-aged athletes from the area, including many from the five boroughs, and Puerto Rico took part in the two-day slate of workouts and scrimmages in front of college recruiters and professional scouts.
The other host cities are Bradenton, Fla., Compton, Calif., and Cincinnati. Approximately 200 high schoolers took part. The Breakthrough Series is "designed to promote baseball as a viable collegiate and professional option for urban youth, especially those from underserved communities," according to an MLB release.
Many of the prospects invited were -- while talented -- the sort that might not otherwise be seen by the relevant parties that would allow them to play at the next level. Kids like Halama.
"There's a lot more talent out there than anybody will ever know," said Halama, a veteran of nine Major League seasons who served as one of the coaches. "It's not just a New York thing. You can take all the cities -- there's a lot more talent that people don't get a chance to see."
One of the lessons Halama and the other coaches tried to impart on the youngsters is a common one: work hard and keep your head up. You never know who is watching.
"Everybody from MLB, the coaching staff, is letting them know straight up, 'Don't ever take it for granted, because you never know that one person that might have a hat on with glasses could be somebody of importance,'" Halama said. "If he's watching you and you have a bad day at the plate, he doesn't care too much about that, but he could be caring about your demeanor and how you're walking around and things of that nature. That could have more of an impact than the 0-for-4 with three punchouts."
It certainly sounded like the players listened. Xaverian High School teammates and rising seniors Nick Meola and Rob Amato both specifically mentioned the need for constant hustle as a main takeaway from their experience.
"[The Breakthrough Series] helps a lot," Meola said. "We've been hearing from both scouts and from people who have actually made it to the level we want to play at. They give us information on what we have to do to get there. You have to want it, work hard and dedicate all your time to it."
Most of the high schoolers will be Draft eligible in 2015 or '16, but one -- Jason Pineda from James Monroe High School in the Bronx -- won't be until '17. He said attending the Breakthrough Series with three high school teammates helped calm his nerves.
"It helps us to relax," Pineda said. "It's a really fun experience to play against everybody, and for the scouts and college coaches to see you."
The overall mood Monday was a hopeful one. There was a sense among the prospects that they were a handful of the lucky ones, selected to compete with and against some of their most talented peers in the region. In many instances, the Breakthrough Series is a better measuring stick than any competition they face during their scholastic or summer league seasons.
"Not everybody gets this chance," said Isaiah Russell, a rising senior at Poly Prep Country Day School. "It definitely gets us some looks. With that, they can see potential and they see where we might be in a couple of years."
If recent history is any indication, these players could end up names to keep an eye on. More than 100 Breakthrough Series participants have been selected in the First-Year Player Draft, including more than 60 combined in the 2012-14 Drafts.
"There's a lot of talent here," Halama said. "And hopefully, these guys understand that playing the game is not easy. It's hard. To go out there and do it seven days a week, to practice as much as you practice, it's a lot of dedication, a lot of sacrifice. Not that you can't have your fun outside the ballpark -- you can -- but when it's time to come to the park, you have to be on your 'A' game and work your backside off."
Tim Healey is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.Less