For Michigan baseball's top recruits, difference makes no difference
Jaylen Jones and Tyler Fullman are two supremely talented student athletes from Georgia and Chicago, respectively. They both have athletic accolades under their belts, and they both have their sights set on professional ball.
Jones and Fullman are two Black pitchers who will join Michigan’s baseball team next year. They will find themselves under the tutelage of coach Erik Bakich, who has gained national attention in recent years for his insistence on having a racially diverse roster in a sport that is known — especially at the college level — to be overwhelmingly white.
They’ll be joining a team that has had recent success. The last uninterrupted college baseball season saw the Wolverines come a mere game away from a national championship, a feat the Michigan baseball program hadn’t achieved in over half a century.
Jones, a left-hander who boasts a fastball that reaches the mid-90s, is no stranger to the mentality Bakich has been trying to avoid — that Black college baseball players come across as abnormal, requiring further scrutiny in the scouting process.
“A white player, they can go out there one time, dominate, and then they’ll get the offer, but (college coaches) want to see me multiple times because they want to make sure, ‘If I’m gonna spend money for a Black player to come here, he’s gotta perform more than once,’ ” Jones said. “I’ve had some SEC schools that haven’t really been known for recruiting Black players. And (Bakich) didn’t care about that. I performed, he liked it, he gave me a scholarship and I took it.”
Jones also echoed a point that Bakich made two years ago in a Washington Post interview: Baseball can be an expensive game for youth baseball players in America, as showcases and travel costs mount quickly for high-level players. This can prove to be a frustrating obstacle, particularly for minority players with inner-city roots that struggle to get exposure.
“Sometimes Black players can’t afford to go play baseball … and Bakich stresses that he wants to give everybody the same opportunity,” Jones said. “It don’t matter your race or whatever, it’s not political for him, it’s just, ‘We want to get the best type of players.’ ”
Fullman, a righty with velocity just as impressive as Jones’s, has been playing baseball since he was four. In recent years, that time has been spent playing with White Sox ACE, a program designed to help inner-city baseball players in Chicago avoid just this problem, giving many players a chance to face high-level competition and gain exposure that otherwise would be difficult or impossible to obtain.
True to form, Bakich has developed inroads with the ACE program, as Fullman will join redshirt sophomore catcher Jordon Rogers as the second player from the program on the team next fall. Dillon Head, a 2023 outfielder from ACE, is committed as well.
As a teammate, color makes no difference to Fullman. He’s focused.
“I treat everybody like family, man,” Fullman said. “I care about the team, (and) I care about winning. I want to be a leader.”
But as an individual, the hard-throwing righty knows the weight that comes with representing a woefully underrepresented group in the sport he’s been passionate about for nearly his whole life.
“As an African American, sometimes I think, like, ‘Man, like I’m not even supposed to be here. I’m not even supposed to be playing this sport right now, ’cause it really isn’t meant for me and this game don’t really love nobody.’ I’ve had those thoughts,” Fullman said. “But you know, I just kept going and I still worked on my game and it really got me where I’m at right now.”
Work he did, and now, beginning his senior year of high school, Fullman has his sights set on Michigan and beyond. A future in the MLB is the ultimate goal, and Fullman’s work ethic and determination make him more than capable of realizing it, but his mentality outside the game makes him prepared for success no matter where his baseball career eventually takes him.
“I want to major in sports management,” Fullman said. “I want to own my own sports complex and become an entrepreneur one day, and I want to be a good student (at Michigan), man.”
As they prepare to take the mound at Ray Fisher Stadium, Fullman and Jones are following in the footsteps of several successful Black players who have already created their legacies — or are creating them still — in the Michigan baseball program. Jones shares Fullman’s major league aspirations, and he’s found sources of advice and wisdom in junior pitcher Isaiah Page — himself an outspoken voice against racial injustice during the past year — and Jordan Nwogu, a decorated Michigan outfielder who just signed with the Chicago Cubs as a third-round draft pick. The two players showed Jones around during his visit to Michigan in the fall of 2019, and Nwogu’s successful ascent to the next level has been a powerful source of inspiration.
“I look up to Nwogu because he’s a heck of a ballplayer, and now he’s gotten drafted,” Jones said. “You try to follow in those footsteps because it’s another Black player that has the opportunity to play professional ball, and that’s my dream as well. I contact him about little stuff and ask him things… (and) I know I can ask him ’cause he’s been through everything at Michigan, and he’s had a ton of success.”
Above all else, the two budding stars in Michigan’s future rotation eagerly await their collegiate futures, because to them, Michigan isn’t simply a place to play baseball. It’s a town, a university and a team that’s eagerly awaiting them, too.
“I went up for an official visit, and right then and there I knew. I knew it was the place for me. Everything I could’ve wanted in a school — they had it,” Jones said. “I felt comfortable there.”
Fullman expressed a similar sentiment, adding that the proximity of Michigan to his hometown makes it all the more special that he was given an opportunity to play in Ann Arbor.
“It’s the greatest school around, really, to me,” Fullman said. “That’s how I feel. Michigan’s a great, awesome school. It’s a school that makes me feel like I’m home.”
In Jones and Fullman, Bakich’s squad is getting two players who possess the qualities any successful program looks for. They are skilled, determined and selfless, and while they both have had unique experiences as Black players in a sport that often fails when it comes to diversity, their focus lies squarely on the task ahead.
Fans will cheer, batters will be sent trudging back to the dugout, and Jones and Fullman will be on the mound, representing the university that they hope will propel them to much greater heights in the coming years.
“It’s really a blessing,” Fullman said. “It’s always been a dream for me to get accepted to this school.”
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