Ian Moller played in a Major League Baseball stadium for the first time in his blossoming career on Saturday … and it wasn’t even the coolest part of his weekend.
One of the top prospects for the 2021 MLB Draft, the Dubuque catcher participated in the Hank Aaron Invitational showcase game at SunTrust Park, the home of the Atlanta Braves. MLB and the MLB Players Association, in conjunction with USA Baseball, sponsors the annual game, which serves as the premier, diversity-focused development experience for high school-age baseball players in the United States.
“I’ve very blessed to be able to go to a few events like this, and I always try to take advantage of the opportunities and pick up as much baseball knowledge as possible,” said Moller, a 6-foot-1, 197-pound junior-to-be at Dubuque Wahlert. “And I have a notebook full of information they taught me last week.
“The best part of being down there, really, wasn’t even playing in the stadium. That part was great. But the best part was getting to learn about our culture and the history of our game and the African-American side of our game. That was the most interesting part of the whole experience, and something I’ll take with me for the rest of my life.”
The event, previously known as the Elite Development Invitational, opened a week earlier with 130 amateur players of diverse backgrounds at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla. It featured players in the graduating classes of 2020, 2021 and 2022 in a spring-training program under the tutelage of dozens of former MLB players and coaches, most notably Andre Dawson, Ken Griffey Jr., Gary Sheffield and Brian Jordan.
The players also listened to presentations from MLB commissioner Rob Manfred; Negro Leagues Museum president Bob Kendrick; MLBPA director Tony Clark; Jackie Robinson’s daughter, Sharon; former big leaguer Chris Chambliss; Vanderbilt coach Tim Corbin and Michigan coach Erik Bakich.
The top 44 participants from the Vero Beach camp earned an invitation to Atlanta. In addition to the Hank Aaron Invitational game, the Braves hosted the players to a variety of cultural activities at landmarks pivotal to the civil rights movement in Atlanta.
They visited the home of Martin Luther King, the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church and the Martin Luther King Center the day before the game and ate lunch at Paschal’s Atlanta Restaurant — the meeting place for some of the most notable entertainers, politicians and business people during the civil rights movement.
“To have the opportunity to play on a Major League Baseball field, along with being in Atlanta — the birthplace of the civil rights movement — really gives a whole perspective on life in general for these kids,” said Del Matthews, the vice president of baseball development for Major League Baseball. “To connect the dots with baseball as a vehicle makes it that much sweeter. They’re with a group of kids who share the same passion and love for the game they do. The like-mindedness creates a strong bond with some of the other kids, and hopefully they’ll end up seeing each other down the road, whether that’s in college or in the professional ranks.”
Nearly 90 percent of the participants in the Hank Aaron Invitational who graduated high school from 2016-19 are either playing baseball in college or the MLB minor league system. The program began in 2015.
Aaron, himself, spoke to the players about his playing days and his subsequent business career. He retired with a then-record 755 home runs, but faced extreme racism and death threats in his pursuit of Babe Ruth’s mark of 714.
“I’ve seen the videos of him hitting home runs, and I kind of knew his backstory, but I didn’t really know the degree of how bad it was for him until we had the opportunity to listen to him,” said Moller, a Louisiana State University commit expected to be the top catcher selected in the 2021 MLB Draft. “The stories he told us were kind of insane, and it gave me a whole new appreciation for him as a man and not just a great baseball player.
“His problems were never on the field. They were either before a game or after a game. On the baseball field, he was out there having fun, being a little kid, playing baseball, enjoying himself. I can’t imagine how tough that must have been for him to go through.”
Moller has participated in similar diversity-driven baseball events, including the Breakthrough Series in Kansas City, Mo., and the Dream Series in Arizona. But the Hank Aaron Invitational separated itself from the others because of the way it emphasized history and culture away from the diamond.
“It really was a priceless week, and I wish everyone could have experienced what we experienced,” said Steven Moller, Ian’s father. “I know it was really inspirational to Ian, both from a baseball perspective and a cultural perspective.”
Ian Moller barely had time to catch his breath before leaving Dubuque for two more prestigious events in California. He will play in the Perfect Game Underclassmen All-American Game and the Underclassmen Area Code Games.
“It’s always a blessing when you get to play in events like that,” Ian Moller said. “Obviously, the best kids in the nation are there. They always say, ‘What’s there to do in Iowa?’ It’s cool to be able to show them that people from Iowa can play sports and play baseball.”