Todd Isaacs, Jr is not a name with which most baseball fans are familiar, but in a few years from now or sooner, international baseball fans will likely call him a pioneer. Most well-known for donning the jersey of Great Britain for a 2017 World Baseball Classic qualifier as 20-year old, Isaacs has a vision for baseball in his native Bahamas. The vision started last summer when the Bahamian outfielder founded Don’t Blink 242, a company dedicated to giving Bahamian baseballers a platform for supporting the sport in their country. In November, Isaacs announced plans for the Don’t Blink Home Run Derby in Paradise, the first professional home run contest—and, indeed, the first event involving professional baseball—in the island country.
There are no professional stadia in the Bahamas, so Isaacs improvised, hosting the derby on January 6 on Montagu Beach. He took full advantage of the vista, setting up markers in the Atlantic Ocean for players to target, and recruited most of his fellow Bahamian professionals to play, some of whom had yet to even play a game since singing contracts. As if a paradisaical background and the cream of the Bahamian crop was not enough, Isaacs offered spots to two of his friends, Bo Bichette and Nick Gordon, both of whom happen to be among the top prospects in the minor leagues. Both made it to the final, where Bichette, the Blue Jays’ minor league Hitter of the Year, best Gordon and Lucius Fox, another highly rated farmhand.
Once the dust had settled and the kayakers had retrieved all the balls (for use by Bahamian youth leagues), we spoke to the friendly and easy-mannered Isaacs at great length about a career that has seen him move to Florida for university, where he was dubbed ‘the fastest player in collegiate baseball’, get drafted by the Indians, play for a national team, and host a critically acclaimed international event. As would become clear during our conversation, big ideas come easily to Isaacs and he makes big plans with little fanfare.
‘I was on the DL last season and I missed about a month and a half and I was thinking about my offseason plans, and I was thinking about what I wanted to do in the offseason and I thought, “Let’s do a home run derby in the Bahamas.” There are 20 of us Bahamian professional players now and I thought there was enough of us to pull it off.
‘So, I gave my best friend Lucius Fox a call—he plays professional baseball as well—and I pitched the idea to him and he loved it, so from that day on—this was the end of July—we started working on it, writing ideas down [on] how we could pull it off.
‘Once the offseason began, my Dad and I few other people I had on the team in the Bahamas…went full force at finding ways to make this happen. We did it in three months! An event like that, it usually takes over a year, so I am super grateful that it happened the way it did and looking forward to planning this full year out and making it even more successful next year.’
There was virtually no media coverage of the event beforehand, with Cleveland.com’s Paul Hoynes the sole American journalist to speak with Isaacs (link). Isaacs told Hoynes, “I was thinking what can I do to get all [Bahamian baseballers] together? To come together to where we can give back to the Bahamian people and [they] can get to see who we are…” We asked Isaacs whether he had accomplished this.
‘I definitely feel like that was accomplished. For us in the Bahamas, we don’t really have the proper fields and facilities for us to train at home, so it was our chance to finally create awareness as to what’s going on in the baseball world in the Bahamas. For me, to make this happen at the stage and magnitude, I think we planted some seeds in the eyes of all the right people that we need to incite change in the Bahamas.
‘I believe, I really and truly believe, that baseball will continue to grow in huge numbers in the Bahamas and it will be a lot more of kids that will be changing their lives and their families’ lives in the future. The goal to create exposure to baseball in the Bahamas and what we have in the Bahamas, I definitely think that was achieved.’
The event began at noon and lasted almost three hours. The lineup read like a roll call of top Bahamian prospects: Lucius Fox, rated Tampa Bay’s No. 7 prospect, Jazz Chisholm, a top 10 prospect in the Diamondbacks’ system, Champ Stuart, Eastern League stolen base leader, a slew of recent Top 30 International Prospects: Kristian Robinson, Trent Deveaux, D’Shawn Knowles, and a few other young players in Dominic Collie, Larry Alcime, Reshard Munroe, and Anfernee Seymour. Three of those players joined Isaacs on Great Britain’s national squad in 2016.
‘Before the event, there were a lot of things that still needed to be done. It was super crazy and there was a lot going on, it was hectic, it was stressful, but when the time came and I finally put the jersey on and dressed up and my mind switched from planning to competing, that’s when it all really set in for me. I left the beach at [about] 11:30 and I got back at [about] 12:30 and in that time the amount of people that were there already, it was incredible, I was lost for words.
‘I believe that the Bahamas has the most exciting and most exhilarating atmosphere when it comes to things like that, so to pull it off, it was incredible. I remember getting up on the stage for my first round and I looked back and people just started screaming and I started to get a little nervous! I’ve played in a lot of stadiums full of people, but it was my first time doing that in front of my people. When I hit the first homer [though], that was it, it was all a show after that.’
Each round consisted of twenty swings, with two players per bracket. Isaacs did well in the first round, hitting four home runs, but according to him, he barely remembers it.
‘That whole time it felt like I was asleep and dreaming. You know when you’re dreaming about something [and] then it happens, it never really happens on [as] grand a stage as it does in your dream? During that day, everything happened ten times better than what I expected it to be in my dream. I can’t even tell you, going through my rounds, stuff like that, what I was thinking. I just knew I was swinging and trying to put on a show!’
In addition to the coterie of fellow islanders and top hitting prospects, Isaacs invited a pair of his teammates to come and support the event. They just so happened to comprise the top two in the Lake County Captains’ rotation in 2017: Triston McKenzie and Juan Hillman. Both are in the Indians’ Top 20 Prospects, with McKenzie a unanimous No. 2 behind Francisco Mejia. Also in attendance was Charles Johnson, a four-time Gold Glove Winner in 12 major league seasons.
‘Having Juan and Triston come down just made it even more special. I told them about this as soon as the idea came up [and they] wanted to be there…to be a part of history and to be a part of something special, just be guests—sign autographs, mentor the kids. Having them there, it meant even more to me because those are my guys. We got drafted together, we lived together the past few seasons, and to share that moment with them was super important to me.’
Unlike McKenzie and Hillman, Bichette and Gordon are neither Indians’ farmhands or Bahamian. They are, however, among the best prospects in the minors. Both were in the Top 50 in Baseball America’s 2017 Midseason Top 100 Prospects (Gordon at No. 19, Bichette at No. 44), while MLB.com had Bichette at No. 26 and Gordon four places later. For what it’s worth McKenzie was at No. 24 and No. 21. Bichette should also be familiar to fans of the World Baseball Classic and his qualifiers as he suited up with his brother for Brazil in the same 2016 tournament as Great Britain.
‘I played against Bo a lot this season and when the idea came around I was sitting in his house and said, “We’re doing this thing later this year in the Bahamas, why don’t you come over?” and he said, “For sure, bro, I’m definitely going to come over and support it and be a part of it. I can’t promise you, though, I might try to win!”, which he did! He’s a really good player, we all admire him. He’s someone we love to compete against and someone we love to learn from.’
‘Having Nick there, with his dad, who played in the big leagues for a really long time, it was cool to have. Father-son duos have seen it all and done it all, so to have him there and have Nick there, who will be in the big leagues this year, it really added the icing and sprinkles on the cake. Now we have people wondering why these big-name prospects [went] to this event in the Bahamas and that was the goal, to bring awareness of what’s going on.’
The derby was branded as a ‘Don’t Blink’ event, a label that numerous Bahamian have been spotted wearing on social media over the past few months.
‘It’s a long story behind it. When I used to run track back in the day, I used to play baseball at the same time. There was this one particular weekend where I had a really big baseball tournament and a qualifying track meet to run for Team Bahamas and these guys that I was competing against the whole year, in the last few feet of the race [pulled ahead of me], both in the 100 metres and the 200 metres. It was the first race I lost all year. From then, ‘don’t blink’ really sat into me:…when you’re at the top you really can’t take a second off and…the one time you blink is the difference between success and failure and for me that resonated at a young age. Reflecting back on what ‘don’t blink’ meant to me, that’s the story that I like to tell about how the name came about.
‘It’s something that [co-founder Lucius Fox and I] wanted to provide a platform for all the other Bahamians to tell their stories, so that’s why the event was titled the “Don’t Blink Home Run Derby in Paradise” because we wanted to keep it non-political from all the leagues and associations in the Bahamas.’
Chisholm, Gordon, Collier, Fox, Alcime, Bichette, and Isaacs advanced out of the first round, joining Reshard Munroe, who had a bye. While Gordon had five on 20 swings and Fox crushed three dingers in as many tries, it was Kristian Robinson who put on one of the top performances. Paired up against Bichette, the right-handed hitter and recent signing by the Diamondbacks crushed seven roundtrippers against a strong wind blowing in from left. The 2017 Top 30 International Prospect was eliminated when Bichette hit eight in 16 swings, the most home runs of any of the 14 players in the opening round.
Gordon, Fox, and Bichette all put on shows in the second round as the top three advanced, leaving strong performances by Chisholm, Gordon, and Alcime just short. Bichette left everyone in the dust to win the title, ripping nine homers in 12 swings. The title winner took home a championship trophy and belt for his efforts.
Isaacs allowed us to break the news that there are plans for another Home Run Derby in Paradise next year, tentatively scheduled for January 5. With an entire year to follow up on an event that came out of nowhere to become far more successful than even Isaacs had dreamed, there is no doubt that the second showcase will be even more impressive than the first.
‘It was really humbling for me to be in the position I am, early in my career, to make something like that happen at the magnitude it did. It is all for the betterment of my brothers who play professional baseball from the Bahamas and the one that will follow in the coming years. We never had the opportunity to play in front of our people back home and…all of us want to give back to the community and be a positive image and a positive voice.’
We will have more from Isaacs this week as we discuss baseball in the Bahamas and his time with Great Britain’s national baseball team.