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As one of the better players in the country among the 2023 high-school class, A.J. Gracia has played high-level competition in noteworthy venues and come in contact with an array of decorated coaches.

Even Gracia, though, was taken aback by an opportunity to play against some of the best players in the country in the home ballpark of the defending World Series champions while interacting with a handful of legendary Major Leaguers.

Gracia – a two-way standout for the Ranney School – was invited to participate in the Hank Aaron Invitational at Truist Park just outside of Atlanta and earned a start in right field last Sunday night. The event hosts some of the best players in the country from “diverse backgrounds” and gives a group of more than 100 players a chance to earn one of the 44 spots in the game at the home of the Atlanta Braves.

“As you can imagine, I was really excited for it,” Gracia said. “It was a great opportunity to play with really good players and be around some famous baseball people and just pick their brains. They learned from some of the greats before them and now I have a chance to learn from them and hopefully be able to pass down everything that I’m able to learn.”

04/16/2022 - Ranney / Rumson-Fair Haven
Ranney junior A.J. Gracia. (Photo: Richard O'Donnell Photography)

During the tryout period held at the Jackie Robinson Training Complex in Vero Beach, Fla. – formerly and informally known as Dodgertown – Gracia and 43 other players earned a spot in the Hank Aaron game on July 31. Gracia started in right and batted ninth in the order for Team Hank Aaron, finishing 0-for-2 with a pair of flyouts – the first of which sailed to the edge of the warning track down the rightfield line.

“Just warming up on the field was surreal,” Gracia said. “Obviously, it’s a Major League field, so you know it’s going to be different, but you don’t appreciate how much bigger everything is until you get out there. The lights are so much higher, the outfield is so much bigger, the shadows on the field are different than what you’re used to playing in high school. You hear a lot about how it’s different playing in a Major League park, especially under the lights, so it was really cool to have that experience.”

Gracia played for the team managed by former Gold Glove centerfielder Marquis Grissom with a coaching staff that included Lou Collier and Dave Gallagher. The other side was managed by former Angels manager Mike Scioscia the players had a chance to interact with Ken Griffey Jr., who was present throughout the tryouts and during the game.

“Getting to meet Griffey and have a chance to listen to him and be around him was probably the most memorable thing,” Gracia said. “Being around all of those great players and coaches and former players was amazing, but Griffey is the guy every player wants to be growing up. He is an icon.”

Gallagher, who is a former Major Leaguer and prominent coach in New Jersey at the amateur level, nominated Gracia for the game.

The Hank Aaron Invitational is an initiative by MLB to promote the baseball in the U.S. for young players from primarily Black and Latin backgrounds. Gracia’s father is a first-generation Cuban-American, with both of A.J. Gracia’s paternal grandparents emigrating from Cuba before meeting one another in the United States.

Gracia is coming off a high school season with Ranney in which he earned First-Team honors in both All-Shore and All-State as an outfielder, while leading the Panthers to their first ever NJSIAA Non-Public B championship. He also played in the Area Code Games, which took him to Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg – the first Major League stadium he played in this summer.

After taking time off at the end of the summer, Gracia will head into the fall looking to continue his improvement at the plate while ramping back up on the mound. According to most public projections of the 2023 MLB Draft, Gracia is considered a future outfielder with a chance to be selected in the first five rounds of the 2023 Draft next July. At the same time, Gracia is committed to play at Duke University as a two-way player and his current focus is to continue to progress as a hitter, outfielder, baserunner and pitcher.

“Once the Hank Aaron game was over, I went into kind of a self-assessment, just trying to go over everything I experienced during the high-school season and the summer,” Gracia said. “I thought I had a great high-school season at the plate and I had a solid summer hitting the ball as well. My main focus is going to be my speed – just trying to get faster and more athletic. I’m not exactly a burner but I like to think I’m pretty fundamentally sound on defense and running the bases, so if I can get a little faster, I think that would help.

“Ultimately, I want to do both (hit and pitch). When I go to Duke, they are expecting me to hit and pitch, so I feel like I owe it to them to be as good as I can be at both. Even if I’m drafted and sign, I still want to keep doing both until a team tells me to stop. You never know what is going to happen with injuries and things like that, so having the option to do both is only going to open up more opportunities for me in the future.”


LOOK: Here are the biggest HBCUs in America

More than 100 historically Black colleges and universities are designated by the U.S. Department of Education, meeting the definition of a school "established prior to 1964, whose principal mission was, and is, the education of black Americans."

StudySoup compiled the 20 largest historically Black colleges and universities in the nation, based on 2021 data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics. Each HBCU on this list is a four-year institution, and the schools are ranked by the total student enrollment.

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