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MLB draft undergoes an L.A. facelift with an eye on fan growth

Zach Neto, left, shakes hands with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred.
Zach Neto, left, shakes hands with MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred after being selected 13th overall in the MLB draft by the Angels on Sunday. By holding its annual draft outdoors for the first time Sunday at L.A. Live, Major League Baseball adopted a festival-like atmosphere that could be a model for drafts to come.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

Major League Baseball has been trying to get more fans engaged with its product for years. One of the ways to build that engagement, MLB hopes, is to hold its amateur draft live for fans to come and see the future of the big leagues.

“It’s exciting to me, and I know it is to [the prospects]. ... And so we’re just checking it out and it’s all beautiful,” said Percy Smith, 62, a longtime Dodgers fan who watched the draft on Xbox Plaza at L.A. Live with his wife, Marilyn, 69.

The Smiths, who are from Los Angeles, started their day on the other side of the barrier to the main draft area and eventually were among the lucky few allowed into the seated audience section. Scores of others watched Day 1 of the event from that barrier.

Dalton Rushing, the Dodgers’ top pick in the 2022 MLB draft, follows Will Smith as the latest catcher to be selected by the franchise.

Holding the draft during All-Star week, MLB believes the event had its most public presence since it was first conducted.

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“We just keep growing every year,” said Marc Weiner, MLB Network’s coordinating producer. “You know, you want to make it a bigger and bigger event. And as time goes on, fans are much more engaged in the prospects and the young players in baseball.”

Added Jeremiah Yolkut, MLB’s vice president of global events, of holding multiple All-Star week events, including the draft, in a public space like L.A. Live: “It’s an important message that this is probably one of the most accessible All-Star Games that Los Angeles has hosted and that’s something that’s paramount to us, to give our fans the ability to get to the events in any way they choose.”

The Baltimore Orioles mascot greets fans during the 2022 MLB draft at L.A. Live on Sunday.
The Baltimore Orioles mascot greets fans during the MLB draft at L.A. Live on Sunday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

MLB seemed to spare no expense in the production, save for how many spectators could fit in that main area shown during the broadcast.

There were several former big leaguers in attendance, including Shawn Green, Nick Swisher and Rollie Fingers, and all talked about their playing days and how different this draft is compared with when they were in the same position.

T-shirt tosses occurred throughout the event. As teams were on the clock, corresponding team songs played and mascots mingled around the fans, taking pictures and hyping up the crowd. Three massive screens were perched atop towers around the plaza so fans in the area could see parts of the show as well as pictures of the players selected.

Fans attend the MLB draft at L.A. Live on Sunday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

The MLB draft went to a live broadcast on MLB Network in 2009 after previously being broadcast by ESPN. But it wasn’t until last year — when the event was held at the Bellco Theater in Colorado during All-Star week — that fans could watch the draft in person.

A relatively small percentage of prospects have attended their drafts in person since 2007 — eight were present Sunday. All the prospects this year have mostly grown up in a world in which the draft has been an event they could attend to hear their names called.

“It’s always been a childhood dream getting my name called out there,” said Campbell University shortstop Zach Neto, 21, the No. 13 overall pick by the Angels on Sunday. His mom, dad, younger sister and older brother flew in from Miami to attend the draft. “Being out there was just a big blessing for me and my family. … Coming out here was just for the experience, for the moment.”

Dodgers first baseman Freddie Freeman, who has been stellar at the plate in recent games, was added to the National League roster the MLB All-Star Game.

The top three picks this year, Jackson Holliday, Druw Jones and Kumar Rocker, were not in attendance. The first player selected who was in attendance was Georgia high school product Termarr Johnson, who went No. 4 to the Pittsburgh Pirates. He had about 20 of his friends and family from Atlanta with him at the draft.

The next player in attendance to get selected wasn’t until No. 11, catcher Kevin Parada. He was chosen by the New York Mets. Parada, who was born in Pasadena and attended Loyola High School before going to Georgia Tech, also had about 20 of his friends and family present. He was among the players with local ties chosen Sunday. Others included Mikey Romero (Boston Red Sox), Justin Campbell (Cleveland Guardians), Cooper Hjerpe (St. Louis Cardinals), Brooks Lee (Minnesota Twins) and Drew Thorpe (New York Yankees).

The New York Mets mascots perform during the MLB draft on Sunday.
(Jae C. Hong / Associated Press)

“To get drafted and have all my family and friends here,” Parada said, “it’s one of the best feelings in the world to be able to look them in the eye and say, ‘Thank you for everything.’”

Most of the crowd stuck around until the 40th pick, when the Dodgers made their first selection, University of Louisville catcher Dalton Rushing. He received loud cheers despite not being in attendance.

After his name was called, many fans got up from their seats and left, with others still watching from the barrier allowed in to fill their seats.

The first 80 picks were scheduled for Sunday. The draft resumes with the start of the third round Monday, and 616 players in all are to be selected.

Druw Jones, the son of former Braves star Andruw Jones and a top prospect in the 2022 MLB draft, isn’t the only prospect with a former major league dad.


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