Leo’s Journey from Little League to College Baseball (HS Junior)

This is part 8 (Age 17, 11th grade) of an ongoing series following a young player’s baseball career from Little League to College Baseball. In order to get the most out of this series, be sure to start at the beginning.

Wayne’s feelings were conflicted as Leo entered his first year with varsity.

Even though Leo had enjoyed dominating at the JV level, Wayne was disappointed with Leo’s lack of desire to play with the varsity team as a sophomore.

On the other hand, Wayne had reasons to be guardedly optimistic this year. After coming off a stellar year playing for JV, the head coach praised Leo and signaled good things to come at a pre-season baseball banquet that took place mid-February.

high school baseball banquet, courtesy Deborah Guske Parrish

In Wayne’s words (post 1257):

Season is about to begin….

My boy was told today he will be the opening day [varsity] starting pitcher.

They had a team banquet with a guest speaker the other night. The coach introduced each player and when my boy came up he said he would be the #1 pitcher on our team and starting catcher. He even said my boy has the ability to play after HS if he keeps his grades up.

College is such a big dream . . .

The pitcher/catcher bit, if true, was concerning. Wayne knew, as did everyone on the forum, that anyone who routinely pitches and catches has a significantly higher risk of arm injury. It remained to be seen how much care the coach would take with Leo’s arm. But at least the coach appeared to be expressing his confidence in Leo’s ability to contribute to the team.

What about College?

Wayne was still thinking of college as a dream . . . a distant dream. From Wayne’s comments on the board, it was clear that Leo was not doing much of what he needed to be doing in his Junior year to pave the way for a college baseball career. Far from it.

click to skip explanation box and resume the story

Want to Play Baseball in College? Junior Year in High School is Key

If you're good enough, they will find you. Ever hear that baseball expression? Don't pay attention to it, as it only applies to a very small number of exceptional student/athletes.

Being proactive is required for the vast majority of high school students who hope to play baseball in college.

The most important year to be proactive is the 11th grade. Whether to get into the right baseball program or to (more importantly) find the best social and academic match, this is the year to put your best foot forward, both athletically and academically.

In terms of athletics, this would be the ideal year to get into top physical condition (with strength and agility training), put up peak numbers at showcase events, and impress the high school coach. That high school coach may be able and willing to facilitate introductions to college coaches.

Academically, kids who have prepared in the previous two years by researching universities, contacting coaches, and getting good grades will be much better positioned to garner a roster spot even if their baseball performance is borderline. Low grades during freshman year or sophomore year necessitate rapid improvement in the junior year.

Although a top sophomore prospect who gets very high numbers at national showcase tournaments will in most cases receive a verbal commitment before the start of his junior year, the vast majority of students entering their junior year are not talented and/or skilled enough to have garnered such strong interest from college baseball coaches. For these more typical students, the road to baseball at the college level is best thought of as a multi-year process starting in the 8th grade, as explained at the scholarshipstats site (scroll to bottom).

Most students will not follow the ideal set of steps described at scholarshipstats, but it's not yet too late to get started and catch up during junior year. Students who have good grades, baseball skill, athletic talent, and (most importantly) determination should still be able to find a place on a baseball team that also fits academically and socially. So . . .

It's good to start by making a list of a few dozen schools that meet academic and geographic criteria and then whittle down the list by studying what they have to offer more carefully. When the list is small enough, perhaps 10-20 schools, the next step is to visit most or all of them to get a better sense of the campus feel and the surrounding area. Potential baseball players will also want to set up interviews with coaches and see the baseball facilities, which is often facilitated by the player's highs school coach. The list of schools will naturally shrink after the visits.

This is the proactive approach, for a student who has been steadily building up his high school resume with good grades, outside activities, etc. For a baseball player hoping to play at the college level, some additional steps may be helpful in getting the attention of college coaches:

* Video of baseball skills
* Showcases documenting running speed, pitching velocity, etc.

This all sounds great in theory, but it presupposes good SAT or ACT scores and good grades as well. The new minimum academic requirements mandated by NCAA rules have increased a bit as of 2016. However, many Division I or academically-oriented schools require grades and scores well above the NCAA-mandated minimum. Higher high school grades/scores mean more college options and that will often mean a better outcome for the student/athlete.

Though Wayne had considered what it takes to get to the college level, he didn’t always act on all the advice (posts 989 through 1232) he received from his forum thread. Leo’s athletic talent, arm strength, and baseball skill were certainly good enough for him to be a reasonable candidate for an NCAA baseball scholarship at the Division II level. Wayne did bring Leo to occasional local showcase tournaments to document his numbers.

However, Leo did not have a proactive approach. Wayne could gather information and provide council, but ultimately it was up to Leo to be proactive and follow-up. Leo was not doing what he needed to do.

Leo did not have good grades. It was unclear whether Leo had any test scores, let alone good ones. Leo did not have a coach with many college ties. Leo’s behavior and attitude might not have been bad enough that potential college coaches would have heard about it, but it might have been bad enough to dissuade his coach from recommending him.

Nevertheless, given how good a ball player Leo was, Wayne was hopeful that Leo’s talent and skill would shine enough to transcend these nonathletic factors working against him. Or perhaps Leo’s love of baseball would provide the motivation Leo needed to turn around his grades and behavior and become more proactive on his own behalf.

Junior Season Begins

The games began in late February.

Leo pitched.

Leo did great his first game, striking out 10 batters and allowing 2 hits in 5 innings. If he hadn’t been pulled after 80 pitches, he might have beat the school record of 12 strikeouts in one game. Wayne was not upset by this as he knew that it’s prudent to go easy on pitcher arms at the beginning of a baseball season. However, Wayne was irritated that Leo didn’t get to bat.

A week later, Leo pitched the game of his life. In Wayne’s words (post 1332):

Tonight we played a game I have dreamed of since my boy was 12 years old.

In our area is maybe the best player in our state who signed with a major D1 school a few months ago . . . tonight my boy was assigned to pitch against him. I’ve waited on this game for years because something always happened and they never pitched against each other.

The game was incredible and was a duel between two pitchers and the crowd was into every pitch. When this boy batted against my boy every person was standing in the stands. In the end my boy struck him out twice and he got a clean single on an at bat.

In the end my boy pitched 5 innings with 11 strikeouts and gave up 2 hits and walked one. On a sad note we lost the game 2 to 0 as the other boy pitched 5 innings and gave up only 1 hit. Both pitchers had so many strikeouts in the game that they were forced out due to pitch count before the 6th inning.

A scout from a D1 school was at the game, no doubt watching this other kid that is so good and deservingly so…. After the game he pulled my boy’s high coach to the side and asked questions about my boy. My boy got a text from his coach when he got home telling him about this scout.

What an amazing night…. even though we lost it’s the kind of game that reminds you how great this game is.

As for the catcher position, Leo was neither the starting catcher nor a primary backup and in fact had little playing time in that position. So at least there was nothing to worry about in terms of arm safety.

But there was something else for Wayne to worry about.

The coach chose to always play a few really big players on the team who were good football players. These were guys who hadn’t played baseball in years and had forgotten much of their baseball skill, if they even had much to begin with. These football player transplants struck out nearly every at bat and made many fielding errors. Leo and several other of the top hitters weren’t given any at bats and watched glumly from the bench as the team lost most of its games.

Sitting on the bench, courtesy pixabay

While Wayne was thrilled at times with a great pitching performance by Leo, at other times he was beside himself with how the coach was running the team. If Wayne was emotional about Leo’s baseball the previous year, that was just a warm-up for the ups and downs of this crazy year where not only Leo, but several of the team’s best baseball players sat on the bench to make way for football players who didn’t know how to play the game. What was going on?

With Wayne reporting the ups and downs of both Leo’s experience and his own emotions, he got to hear some other horror stories from forum members. It is quite common for high school coaches to bench a highly skilled player for someone who is clearly not contributing anywhere near as much for the team, and for parents to be baffled when it happens. Despite reading these stories and understanding that he wasn’t alone, it was still very hard on Wayne to watch all this unfold (see how to deal with getting benched).

Sometimes it looked as if all might end well for Leo in spite of it all, because every once in a while a college scout would appear at a game in order to observe a star player on the opponent’s team and would notice Leo’s great pitching. Sometimes Leo would hear that such and such college scout noticed him and that a college coach might be in touch. Unfortunately, nothing ever seemed to come of it.

Accident

Hard as all these ups and downs were throughout February, they all paled to insignificance on one fateful day at the end of February. In Wayne’s words (post 1359):

Sad horrible day…. OMG I never want this to happen again!!!!

As I got off work today my cell phone rang. It was the call you hear in your nightmares but dare not mention out loud. The call every parent refuses to believe will happen.

The person on the other end told me to get to the baseball field as fast as I can. A helicopter has landed in center field and they are there to get my boy…….

Terror ripped through my very soul. I put on my flashers and ran every red light while laying down hard on my car horn.

I pull up to the field and a helicopter is setting in Center field with a fire truck several police cars and an ambulance. I speed through the school parking lot and slam on my brakes. I jump out of the car in a panic and I see my boys coach. He just shakes his head. I scream WHAT HAPPENED? IS HE ALRIGHT??

He is lying on a stretcher and they have him laced into the stretcher so tight that he can’t even move his lips. I ask everyone WHAT HAPPENED?????? I get 10 different stories and the policeman refuses to let me in the ambulance where they are tending him. All I can think is why is this guy being an ass while my boy lies tied in a stretcher?

The Nurse or doctor or whoever finally opens the door and says come in. I’ve lost it and I’m pretty much out of my mind. Grown men don’t cry……. I cried like a new born baby. Finally they tell me a freak accident happened and he fell and hit his head on an iron bar. When he came too he couldn’t feel his fingers or toes. They tell me they’ve called for the helicopter to get him to a specialist as soon as possible. Then they make me sign papers and tell me I can’t fly with him. I have to drive to the hospital which is 90 minutes away.

Watching that helicopter take off was like watching Death as it approached my soul and invited me in. My life, as sad as my life is, was flying away strapped to a stretcher. I guess I’m not normal in some ways but it’s like this…. he isn’t just my grandson. He’s the air I breathe and the light in my life. He’s everything I love in this God forsaken stupid world. He’s the only joy I’ve ever known.

At the hospital his coach comes in and the school principal. My cell phone is ringing off the hook and the battery is almost drained down. My wife is 800 miles away working and terrified.

Hours later the cat scan comes back and it’s good news. Only a concussion.

He will be ok. I’ve lost 10 years off my life . . . He’s lost at least 3 weeks of the season but at least he will be ok. When he was lying on the stretcher I didn’t think of baseball or how fast his fastball was….. all I saw was my joy in pain.

The accident was not related to playing baseball. Leo and a friend were horsing around in the batting cage, play wrestling or something similar. Leo accidentally fell backwards into the “L” screen bar, knocking the back of his neck onto the metal bar. Leo was knocked out. When he came to he could not move his arms or legs and felt tingling in his fingers and toes. At first, a trainer on the scene feared that Leo had broken his neck.

Wayne was hugely relieved that Leo would be okay after this scare—a mid-level concussion with several severe bruises. A week after the accident he was suiting up in his baseball gear, watching the game from the dugout. He could not play yet, but at least he could watch.

Leo did not enjoy watching his team play so poorly. After 15 games, the team was 5-10, but this was the easiest part of the schedule when they played schools much smaller than them. Wayne expected they’d lose by much more when they soon started playing the much tougher competition, the other big 6A schools.

A few days later, 6 players quit the team. 4 of them were starters.

It wasn’t just about the losing. It wasn’t just about the football players in the starting lineup. It was a lot of things, including things the coach was doing this year that seemed to be designed to humiliate players. What bothered Wayne most was when the coach pulled a player off the field just as he was running onto the field, something that happened many times.

The coach was losing the support of both parents and players. Nobody understood what was going on.

The Season Ends

By mid-March, Leo still had considerable neck pain and stiffness, but the coach asked if Leo could play. The doctor cleared him to play, as long as he could stand the pain.

Leo’s first game back, he played 2nd base and batted for the first time in the season. He was 3 for 3 this first game. Each of the 4 football players who had started every game (over 60 plate appearances each) had fewer than 3 hits for the entire season. Leo passed their hit count after just three plate appearances.

In his second game back, Leo pitched. He didn’t do as well as usual, but that was understandable given all the pain and stiffness around his neck. He gave up 5 runs in 4 innings, with only 1 of those runs earned. As usual, there were numerous errors behind him.

Leo played more games through March as 2nd baseman, shortstop, and pitcher, as he gradually recovered from his neck injury. Mostly he played well, though he wasn’t enjoying the game anywhere near as much as he used to. Seeing the coach humiliating players (including him once), losing so many games by lopsided scores, and seeing his friends one by one lose their love for the game . . . it affected Leo. He didn’t seem to care as much about baseball anymore.

With just 4 games left in the season, the team was 9-27, with all 9 wins coming early in the year against much smaller schools. The team did not win a single game against any team in their same 6a size class.

The season ended on a crazy note. If anything, the coach seemed to sit his better players even more for the last few games, including Leo. But the real head turner was what the coach did when they had a really good chance to win a game with Leo pitching . . .

The game was tied 5 to 5 (only one earned run). Leo’s team was batting, with 2 outs and runners on 2nd and 3rd in the top of the 6th. The coach brought in a pinch hitter—the team manager.

A team manager (sometimes also called equipment manager) is a student who is an important administrative assistant to the team. He keeps score, makes sure there are enough balls, sets up the field, and may have other duties as well such as setting up the sound system. However, the team manager is not an actual player. Usually, the team manager does not work out with the team or keep his baseball skills sharp, though he usually understands the game, having played baseball at an earlier age.

That’s who the coach put in to bat: The team manager. As Wayne reported (post 1404):

Of course the pitcher blows three strikes by him to end the inning.

One boy on our team quit right then and there when that happened. He was one of our top 3 pitchers. He took his stuff and walked out and never came back.

This is the kind of year we’ve had to put up with.

A couple days later, the head coach was fired. He may have known it was coming, which would explain why he ratcheted up the craziness of his coaching behaviors to a whole new level for the last few days of the season.

When Players Quit

The coach left behind him a demoralized team, for those who had stuck it out. Not too many even liked playing baseball any more. Wayne referred to at least 7 players quitting, and several of those players were very good. It was a disaster of a year for Leo’s high school baseball program.

Wayne had looked into transferring Leo to another school district several times during sophomore and junior year. But he never did figure out a way around the restriction that said a player couldn’t play sports for a year after transferring. However, the school district where Leo’s father lived got wind of Leo’s discontent and arranged a meeting with Leo and his grandfather Wayne to see if Leo might want to move in with his father. That would be a way for Leo to play baseball next year in a different district that satisfied the rules.

At this meeting is when Wayne heard a story that, if true, explained why Leo’s coach threw away the season the way he did. In Wayne’s words (post 1443):

Word got around to a coach from another team that my boy will probably be changing schools next year. The coach invited my boy and his dad to have a meeting with them yesterday about playing for his school. The principal was also in on the meeting.

This coach was an assistant coach on my boy’s 8th grade football team. (they also want my boy to play QB for them).

Anyway, they were talking to my boy and trying to convince him to come play for them and the conversation ended up on what happened this season with our Varsity team. The coach talking to my boy shook his head and said he wasn’t surprised. My boy asked him what he meant by that?

The coach went into detail that our Varsity coach (the one that just got fired) would tell anyone who would listen that our school would never have a good baseball team because all they cared about was football. He was dead set on recruiting the football players to get an interest in baseball.

This of course explains this season. The coach put 5 players from the football team in the starting lineup…. just handed them the positions even though it was clear they were either not good players or not ready. He didn’t care about the schools record last year or this year or next year….. he was trying to get football players on the team.

My problem, and all of the other parents problem was this….. what about the boys who have spent their lives getting ready for High School/Varsity baseball? They only get to live this once. Let’s face it, probably none of them will play after high-school. This coach took it upon himself to do away with their high-school career. I mean he let these football players play every inning of every game and not a single one of them was hitting .100 and all of them were so bad on defense it was embarrassing to watch. This went on all year.

All of you can disagree with me if you want……that’s fine. Winning doesn’t matter and do what’s best for the team. Meanwhile kids who have worked for 10 plus years to play Highschool baseball were forced to watch this crap. Mind you, the coach would never explain anything…. he had this rule about never talk to him and his number one rule to parents was NEVER EVER EVER EVER AND I MEAN EVER TALK TO ME ABOUT YOUR KID AND PLAYING TIME!

What we couldn’t understand was why didn’t he at least put them on the JV team and let them get some games in? Get the JV coach to teach them the game. You people have no idea how bad it was…… I could tell you countless stories.

Here is one: We were down one run in the last inning with two outs against a top 6A school….. one of these football players got hit by a pitch then stole second base. There are two outs in the last inning mind you. My boy comes up to bat and hits a bomb to the outfield for a stand-up double. What does this football player do? He stands on second base and watches the ball role all the way to the fence….everyone is screaming RUN RUN RUN! He finally runs and gets thrown out at 3rd base and ends the game. My boy is standing on second base shaking his head.

This is just one story of many that happened this year. But the gist of it is this…. none of these boys had the most basic idea how to play the game. Mind you we had good quality players sitting on the bench who have played all their lives and have shown they are good players.

I know the coach was trying to build a program but along the way he lost the team.

If this story were true, then the cause for the erratic coaching was political maneuvering in an attempt to elevate the school administration’s baseball priorities to be as high as football. At least 7 players quit the baseball team because of it. This post and others throughout the year sparked a lot of discussion among forum members about how bad it has to get before a high school player should consider quitting the team. There was also much discussion about how parents should treat the coaching relationship with both the player and the family. When, if ever, is it time to speak up about outrageous coach behavior? When is it okay to quit a team?

click to skip explanation box and resume the story

To Quit or not to Quit, that is the Question

Discussions about quitting in response to an unhappy coach experience often get confused because there's often two questions bundled into one:

* Should you quit the sport?
* Should you quit the team?

The first of these is easier to answer. Most accomplished athletes will tell you that if you truly love your sport, desire to excel, and are willing to do whatever it takes, then you will not quit in response to a bad coach, or any other form of adversity. If you do quit a sport in response to a bad coach, then you didn't love the sport enough to overcome the setbacks. Nearly everyone's interests changes over the course of their life and there's no shame in shifting interests and coming to realize your passion level for a particular interest is less than you thought. But that's a decision for you to make, not your coach. If you have enough passion, a bad coach is no reason to quit.

The second question is tougher, and opinions are all over the map. Nearly everyone would agree that it's reasonable to quit a team that has a coach engaged in illegal activity or physical abuse. But what about verbal abuse? How do you even define verbal abuse? What if the coach is just doing a terrible job, or blatantly favoring certain kids to the detriment of the team?

Some people believe that sticking with a team until the end of a season is the same as following through on a commitment and should be done no matter how bad the team is run (barring physical abuse or illegal activity). And it's not just a commitment to the coach or organization. It's also a commitment to teammates. Tough situations happen in life such as a bad boss, a rough patch during a marriage, etc. Learning how to stay committed to a team despite a bad baseball coach for a season is helpful preparation for life.

Another reason to stick with a team is reputation. What kind of reputation does a player have when he quits 4 different teams mid-season in 3 years?

On the other hand, some people believe that commitment goes both ways, and that each situation is unique and should be evaluated on its own merits. Did the coach make promises in the preseason meeting that aren't being kept? Is the player being told why he's sitting on the bench when he asks his coach? Does the coach go way out of his way to verbally humiliate many players on the team? Are several top players on the team sitting on the bench while players of lesser ability routinely play? Does the coach make players play through pain or make other decisions that lead to increased chances for injury?

Pushing kids very hard to improve, making controversial game-time decisions or position assignments, or having criteria for decisions that differ from other coaches - it's up to the coach to decide these things. But quite a few people would argue that coaches should be held to a certain standard of communication and decency with their players. Perhaps it is time to quit a team when coaches don't even come close to meeting a reasonable standard, especially if they are making many decisions that seem bizarre.

Regardless of what a parent or player believes about quitting, the decision should never be taken lightly. You don't want to be that player who quits 4 different teams mid-season in 3 years.

Leo did stick with the team and Wayne encouraged him to do so, but he was filled with doubt about whether he had done the right thing. What was the point of it all when he was on the bench? Or course, forum members had something to say about parents complaining about how much time their players spent on the bench. For example, one forum member felt that it’s usually the player’s own doing (post 1326):

WOW – For all the knowledge on this board I am surprised by all the poor kid comments! Being a starting player in good programs requires more than just quality play on the field.

[Wayne] I have followed your posts. Enjoy reading most of them. Your grandson has been down this road before and it came out there was some off the field issues. Right???

[Wayne] and all others who find their kid is getting the short shaft on playing, it comes down to one or a combo of:

  1. He is not as good as you think
  2. He is maxed out and the lesser player can hold is own and will become better than your son with time
  3. He has a bad attitude
  4. He is a bad student – not just grades. Could have good grades but disrupts class
  5. etc… but you get my point

It’s not and shouldn’t be just about performance at game time.

But another forum member pointed out that it’s sometimes the coach (post 1327):

That’s just a partial list. Other very key missing points include

  1. The coach is incompetent and a jerk.
  2. The lesser players parents are influential with the coach and/or booster club.
  3. The lesser players mother is really good looking.
  4. The coach likes football players on his team because he thinks that two sport athletes are better than baseball only players.

etc., etc. As others have pointed out, there could be a ton of reasons, not all of them are logical and not all the kids fault. I would say the majority of the time it’s your list (i.e., it’s the kids fault), I’ve seen a LOT of the others, and for reasons even worse than I listed.

But regardless of who was to blame for Leo’s disastrous high school junior year of baseball, it was done. It was time for Leo to figure out what to do next.

What Next?

Leo liked playing baseball and wanted to keep playing. He didn’t like playing baseball for the coach who was fired, and his desire to work hard at his game had been in decline for years. But he liked it enough to keep at it despite his bizarre junior year experience. Leo was hoping to take the summer off and do nothing, but Wayne convinced him he needed to do something, and he preferred to do baseball over anything else. So Leo played American Legion baseball in the summer.

In June, Wayne heard great news about his high school baseball program. In Wayne’s words (post 1463):

First, my boy has decided not to change schools for his senior year . . .

Now, our school has hired what people are calling a “GRAND SLAM HIRE” for a coach. Of course you never know but this coach is supposed to be special. He currently has two of his sons playing in the Major Leagues and another son in double A. He had many job offers but for some reason chose our school to come and coach. I know it’s not about money because everyone knows what he will be paid (which is almost nothing). He had been with the same high school for many years and decided to make a change.

I will say this about my boy…. I’m pretty disappointed in his work ethic. I’ve done all I can do at this point and at some point in his life he has to decide that if he wants something, he’s going to have to work hard to achieve his goals.

I just wish there was some way I could light a fire under my boy and get him to work at his game this summer…. I really don’t know what to do other than pray about it. It was always my hope that he could at least get a scholarship at a Jr college and get an education…. but he has to get a lot better before anything like that can ever happen.

In July, Wayne learned more about the new coach (post 1477):

We had our first meeting with the new high school coach that is coming to our school next year. I love love love this guy. He is very hard-nosed and tough. He’s won several state championships with his previous school and he currently has two sons playing Major League baseball and another in double A.

He told the players that most of them will not make it. He said he runs a very tough program and most of them will quit. He does not put up with anything and is hard core hard-nosed get in your face kind of a coach. I love love love this guy.

With that said I fear my boy will not make it. Instead of being excited when he got home he was complaining about all the rules and stuff. I just shook my head. It is my hope this coach can tear him down and build him back up. He’s a good kid and all but he has really gotten lazy.

Could this coach turn around the baseball program at Leo’s school? Would Leo even welcome such a change, if it required a lot of hard work?

Time would tell . . .

Part 9 of Leo’s story: HS Senior, A New Hope (Age 18, 12th grade)

 

Author: Joe Golton

I’m a dad with a son who loves baseball. Professionally, I’ve been a software developer, investor, controller, and logistics manager. I now make my living from this blog, supplemented with occasional consulting gigs.

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