Monday, August 3, 2009

Baseball players enjoy plenty of summer options


It was less than a decade ago and high school baseball players had all of two viable choices when it came to summer baseball — American Legion or Dixie Majors.
Now, the options for those same players have grown incrementally in number, but exponentially in opportunity.

The growth of select baseball — specially assembled teams that play in regional or national tournaments — has played a large role in those options.

Academies, such as Gametime Academy in Bossier City, have put together travel teams from 12 years old and up, but the most notable teams are composed of high school-age athletes. Just as athletes in other sports, older baseball players have turned to select teams in order to gain exposure and possible college scholarships.

"You get to play in a lot of places you don't play in the spring for obvious reasons," Gametime Academy owner/operator Ronnie Coker said. "This fall, we'll play at UALR, ULM, ULL and we've been invited to some big tournaments outside the area. It gives those kids a chance, if they choose to, to be exposed to other colleges and areas that they don't get to be exposed to."

Select baseball also has permeated the ranks of youth baseball. Bob Horn founded the Ark-La-Tex Tornado, which has three teams for players 14 years old and younger, eight years ago and has sent his three teams to numerous select World Series appearances.

While most high schoolers use select baseball for exposure reasons, Horn said his organization, which owns its own park and indoor hitting facility, prepares children to become better high school baseball players.

"With where select baseball's at today, if you don't play select baseball today, it's hard to be a good high school baseball player," Horn said. "There are a lot of good players in Dixie, but overall, select baseball at the highest level — the Major level — they're the best of the best in the Ark-La-Tex."

As players grow older, exposure and scholarships — with the addition of playing better competition — become the driving force behind many select players.

"We've been to Tulane and there were a bunch of scouts there," said Casey Elkins, a 2009 Captain Shreve graduate who is playing with the Gametime Academy 18-and-under squad. "We went to New Iberia and there were a bunch of scouts there. In Legion ball, it's like you're still in high school. These guys here (select), there's a lot more scouts and people at these games."

Elkins has a solid basis for comparison when it comes to summer baseball, having played with the Shreveport A's, the Captain Shreve-based Legion team the past couple of summers.

There are philosophical differences for summer coaches as well. Numerous Legion coaches do not have graduated seniors playing for their teams, thereby using the summer seasons to groom up-and-coming talent for the high school season.

"We play a tremendous amount of games and our kids learn a lot," Captain Shreve coach Todd Sharp said. "We're able to keep our coaches and our high school coaches run it. You're able to teach the same things, which is good. In select, it's hard to tell a four-hole hitter on a select team not to swing in a certain count. If you pay X amount of dollars, you feel you have to do certain things. With Legion, it's the same philosophy throughout. I don't know if they'd be better off in a select program or not, but our high school benefits from (Legion)."

There also has been a touch of star power added to the select level. Four years ago, former World Series champion and 17-year Major League Baseball veteran Marquis Grissom, currently the first base coach for the Washington Nationals, founded the Marquis Grissom Baseball Association in suburban Atlanta and created a group of travel teams.

In 2008, Grissom brought a couple of his teams to Shreveport-Bossier City for a Gametime Academy tournament. Much like other select teams, Grissom's reasons were among the central themes common to many of his counterparts.

"We continue to go to different places to give them the experience and the exposure," Grissom said. "That's what part of this program is all about. You get a chance to see the kids play in Louisiana. They get to play at Kennesaw State. They get a chance to play at the Tampa Bay Rays spring training site. They get to play at the Yankees spring training site. It gives them the opportunity and experience so when they do go to college, they've experienced a little bit of what it's like."

Those who play — and pay to play — select baseball are not the only benefactors from the explosion of select baseball tournaments.

Given the scheduling conflicts between college and high school teams, summer tournaments often act as one-stop shopping for college recruiters. They also are able to see players on more of a level playing field, making it easier to compare players from smaller schools or towns to those from larger schools.

"Some of the smaller (school) kids you don't get to see all the time and then you worry about what kind of competition they play on a daily basis," said Dax Leone, a former ULM pitching coach who left his post in June for family reasons. "This puts them against a little more elite kids. For a smaller-school kid, (playing select) would definitely be a benefit."

The presence of scouts is something that does not got unnoticed by the players, no matter their age.

"You start to see the same faces at different parks and different tournaments," said Thomas Simoneaux, a rising senior at Ruston High who is playing with Gametime Academy's 18-and-under team. "You start to get familiar with them."

The number of games is another factor for those who play select baseball. A rather unencumbered schedule means a chance to squeeze in more baseball during the same amount of time, while also leaving players time to play American Legion if they choose to do so.

"We travel a lot and we try to find the best teams to play," said Kade Garlington, a 2009 Evangel graduate and Gametime Academy 18U player. "Legion ball is mostly local unless you get into the state tournament. When you travel to play select ball, you find a lot of good teams all over the country. That's why I played select through my high school years."

When he started his select program, Coker ran into some resistance from some coaches who perceived the group to be anti-Legion or anti-Dixie or anti-Little League.

Time has changed some of those coaches' stances and helped Gametime Academy flourish. Coker's enterprise now fields five teams with plans to add a sixth team in the summer of 2010.

"Initially, a lot of coaches felt like we were competing against them," Coker said. "Now the different coaches around the state are starting to say, 'Look, they're helping our kids get exposed.' We're not anti-Legion or anti-anything. We're pro-kid.

"It's been amazing what we can get accomplished when we don't care who gets the credit."

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