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VOL. 10 | NO. 21 | Saturday, May 20, 2017

Dream a Baseball Dream

Memphis area produces more than its share of college, pro and MLB players

By Don Wade

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Memphis is Hoops City, a hotbed of premier basketball talent. That’s why University of Memphis basketball coach Tubby Smith is under pressure. The best of those hometown players on his team, Dedric Lawson, has transferred to the University of Kansas and everyone’s worried Smith won’t get the elite local talent going forward.

Football players are grown here, too. In fact, the recruiting scandal that rocked the University of Alabama pre-Nick Saban was all about a defensive lineman from Trezevant High School named Albert Means.

But while the city supplies colleges and, yes, even the NBA and NFL, with its home-grown talent, each year dozens and dozens of local baseball players go on to play at the college level. And in last summer’s Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft, six local players who were teammates on the Memphis Tigers 18-and-Under team were drafted from their respective college programs.

Five of them are playing in the minors now but it is the sixth, Brent Rooker, taken in the 38th round (1,143rd overall) by the Minnesota Twins, who stands out most today.

Rooker, a first baseman/outfielder who played at Evangelical Christian School (ECS), did not sign with the Twins and returned to Mississippi State for his redshirt junior season. Through May 15, he led the SEC in seven major offensive categories: batting average (.406), home runs (20), runs batted in (71), doubles (26), slugging percentage (.885), on-base percentage (.514) and stolen bases (t-18).

“Brent Rooker is just showing out right now,” said University of Memphis senior outfielder Chris Carrier, who is the Tigers’ leading hitter and graduated Christian Brothers High School in 2013, the same year Rooker graduated ECS. “Jordan Rodgers (Memphis University School) goes to Tennessee, West Covington (St. Benedict) goes to ECU, they’re all having great careers.

“It’s crazy how much talent comes out of Memphis.”

So much that space does not permit the listing of all the players currently playing from junior college to Division 1. Or all the signees from the 2017 graduating class. Kerry Sweeney, owner and instructor of Memphis Baseball Academy, which oversees the Memphis Tigers travel baseball program, estimates that each year about 75 metro area players commit to play college baseball and that 20-25 of them will play Division 1.

“People look at the basketball and football and they just don’t realize,” said U of M pitcher Jonathan Bowlan, who played his high school ball at Arlington and Bartlett.

Rooker will be drafted again this June, but this time he will almost certainly be chosen in the first five rounds and he could sneak into the back of the first round. The one knock against him? His “advanced” age (22). Wherever he is drafted, he will be in the middle of a long continuum that could have the major leagues as his final destination.

Left-handed pitcher Sam Moll, who went to high school at St. Benedict and pitched for the U of M, is now just one step away in Triple-A with the Albuquerque Isotopes. They recently played the Memphis Redbirds at AutoZone Park. Moll has been at this minor-league business since 2013 when the Colorado Rockies selected him in the third round. He grew up playing competitive travel ball like almost everybody does who makes it this far now.

Moll worked on his game well aware of the best player of recent vintage to come from greater Memphis: San Francisco Giants right-hander Matt Cain (Houston High School), who was a first-round draft choice 15 years ago and now counts on his resume 104 big-league wins, three World Series rings and three All-Star selections, and one perfect game.

Other area players also dot big-league rosters: From Cincinnati Reds infielder Zack Cozart (Collierville) to Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Logan Forseythe (CBHS) to Boston Red Sox pitcher Drew Pomeranz (Collierville); pitcher Daniel Wright (Bartlett) also has had a little time with the Los Angeles Angels this season.

“You can relate to those guys that have come from your area and know that it is possible,” Moll said. “High-profile basketball players out of this area, their road to the NBA is a little bit quicker and might come with some better amenities. When you get drafted in baseball it’s a slower process, a little more difficult. In the minor leagues, there are some long bus rides that are, you know, quite a trip.”

THE JOURNEY STARTS HERE

Terry Rooker coached his son Brent’s competitive Germantown Giants team from ages 8 to 14, and coached his younger son Joshua in competitive ball from 10-17; Joshua, a catcher who is in the 2017 ECS class, is going to play junior college baseball in Alabama.

The father thinks about all those practices and games with his sons and he knows in his heart of hearts it helped them develop as players.

“In looking back at Brent’s experience and Joshua’s experience, you do have to play at the highest level possible if that’s what you aspire to,” Terry Rooker said. “The danger in that is, how do you know what a kid eight or nine years old aspires to? It’s a fine line. It’d be easy to burn a kid out.”

Redbirds manager Stubby Clapp is a co-founder of Elite Sports Academy & Fitness in Savannah, Tenn. He has given many hitting lessons in his day. And he has seen that look when a young player has had enough.

“We talk to the parents,” Clapp said. “If your kid’s getting burned out, especially with lessons over the winter, we’re gonna tell you, `Hey, give him some time off. They’re just going through the motions, they’re not interested like they used to be.’ But a lot of people are scared they’re going to lose their spot and so they’ll book it just for that.”

Carrier was playing competitive ball for the Memphis Tigers by age 8. He liked it, but it wasn’t all fun and postgame juice boxes.

“There’s so much more work in competitive ball than rec ball – more games, more practice, more demanding on the kid,” Carrier said.

Programs such as the Memphis Tigers and Dulin’s Dodgers are preceded by their reputations at regional and national tournaments (operator Tim Dulin did not return a call from The Daily News by press time, nor did Batter’s Box Baseball owner Tim Sumner).

“We have 52 years of history behind us and they know the Kelly green and who the Memphis Tigers are,” Sweeney said. “When we show up, we have a target on our jersey.”

Terry Rooker has good memories from the games in which he coached his sons. He can recall big situations when Brent was at the plate with runners in scoring position and the game, and perhaps a tournament, hung in the balance. At some level, all those experiences were grooming Brent for the outsized success he is enjoying now.

So, no, he can’t criticize competitive baseball without looking in the mirror. But he’s willing to do that, too.

“I’ve loved it,” Terry said. “It created a lot of great moments and memories. But we can get lost in adding another $3 trophy to the shelf. It doesn’t mean much compared to developing a kid’s character, or learning how to be a good teammate.”

TO SPECIALIZE OR NOT SPECIALIZE

Dr. Robert Miller, a sports doctor at Campbell Clinic, and a team doctor for the Redbirds, U of M, Rhodes College and who helps out with the Grizzlies, advocates the young athlete not homing in on just one sport. He says he is not alone in this suggestion. (See related Q&A with Dr. Miller on page 17).

“Actually, if you talk to a bunch of the coaches and physicians, they would recommend diversity,” he said. “Not just focusing on one sport. A lot of coaches feel that produces a better athlete. And it definitely reduces the chances for an overuse type injury. Take a break, some time to rest and recover.”

Clapp says, “I’m 100 percent a supporter of multi-sport athletes” and growing up in Canada he took this approach to the extreme: He played baseball, football and hockey and threw the javelin.

“Grade 12, I was playing Junior B hockey and they just gave me the playbook in football so I could run my routes – I was a receiver – and I’d got to whatever practices I could get to,” said Clapp, who eventually played baseball at Texas Tech, for the Redbirds, and got 23 games in the majors with the St. Louis Cardinals. “But my priority then was hockey.”

Clapp’s oldest son is 13 and for now, the teen wants to focus on baseball. Dad is trying to keep his son’s mind open to at least one other sport, not wanting him to feel pressure because his old man played baseball. But Clapp also understands why players, parents and coaches lean toward one-sport specialization.

“I can definitely see where some kids get left behind if they don’t do enough work through the off-season because of everybody else going to one sport at such a young age,” he said.

Clapp also has a cautionary tale: One of his pupils at Elite, outfielder Cal Gobbell from Hardin County High School, signed with Tennessee. He then decided to play in a high school football all-star game.

“I think he had a chance to start his freshman year and he jacked up his shoulder,” Clapp said, adding that Gobbell was redshirted.

Baseball, however, is not the only sport with single-focus athletes in middle school and high school.

“It’s AAU basketball, cheerleading … it’s not just baseball,” Sweeney said. “Baseball takes the rap for it, but other sports are doing the same thing.”

The cheerleading example wasn’t something he just plucked from the air. Sweeney’s daughter Kenzie was a competitive cheerleader ever since, well, she would have been old enough for coach-pitch. She’s now a cheerleader at the U of M.

When she was younger and competing, Dad was paying out $320 a month in fees.

“It paid off in two ways,” he said. “She got a scholarship and she just won a national championship.”

Sweeney gets the math, by the way. He knows he spent more on her cheerleading fees and all the travel expenses than the scholarship returned. But there was a goal and it has been met and then some. So he counts it as a victory, adding, “Sometimes, it does work out.”

PAYING THE PRICE … OR NOT

Not only are dozens of players from the Memphis area headed off to play college baseball, but Sweeney identified two players that train at Memphis Baseball Academy with a chance to be drafted straight out of high school.

One is Dyer County left-handed pitcher Jordan Fowler, an Ole Miss commit. The other is catcher C.J. Dunn from Center Hill, Mississippi. Dunn only recently started playing for the Tigers; previously he played for Vision Baseball, run by his father, Cordell Dunn. Vision Baseball merged with the Tigers. C.J. has committed to Texas Tech.

C.J. Dunn is also African-American. In recent years, baseball has watched the number of African-American players at all levels dwindle. The cost of competitive baseball is one reason, Sweeney says, noting that in general the fees for travel teams at ages 8-10 run $800 to $1,200 and for ages 15-18 the cost can rise to $2,200 to $3,000.

“Some of the financial stuff with some of these travel teams is crazy,” Clapp said, noting that his academy only added travel teams a little more than a year ago.

But college baseball programs also don’t offer full-ride scholarships as their basketball and football counterparts do. That can influence the path young athletes choose.

“On the baseball side, you’re talking 11.7 scholarships for a roster of 35, 28 of them on (partial) scholarships and the rest walk-ons and preferred walk-on,” Sweeney said. “Even at the college level, it’s a money issue.”

WEALTH OF TALENT

When Daron Schoenrock accepted the U of M baseball head coaching position 13 years ago he surveyed the surrounding baseball landscape and liked what he saw. He knew it pretty well from having recruited the area while an assistant at three SEC schools.

“I felt like we could get a third of the roster from within 50 miles of campus and then other two-thirds will be from anywhere,” Schoenrock said. “I started recruiting the city in 1989. I signed a Germantown High School player when I was at Birmingham Southern. I’ve been migrating around this city and there are six or seven really committed high school programs where they have baseball guys running the program, baseball support.”

But the U of M does not stop there. The Tigers recruit the summer teams which, in general, have larger collections of talented players in one place.

“We have to recruit both,” he said. “We can’t separate the two. Sometimes there’s a little feud erupting between the summer coaches and high school coaches and I’ve told my staff we gotta stay out of those feuds.”

Schoenrock snapped up senior infielder Zach Schritenthal from DeSoto Central and former closer Nolan Blackwood (one of those 2016 MLB draftees) from Southaven High in the 2013 class. Schritenthal had just moved to the area from Kansas City for his freshman year in high school.

“First guy I faced was Brady Bramlett (Arlington High School), who went to Ole Miss. First guy I saw throwing 90,” Schritenthal said. “The level of play from Kansas City to here – night and day.”

Schritenthal also played on that Memphis Tigers 18-and-Under team. Most of the players were together on the Memphis Tigers 17-and-Under team and it was followed by several college scouts.

Brent Rooker played for the East Coast Grays organization that summer. He got offers from Memphis, Duke, MSU and Samford. Ole Miss and Tennessee, his father said, “sniffed around.” But obviously not long enough.

Terry Rooker was himself a college baseball player, a catcher at Memphis from 1989-1991. His era of player never played 60 to 70 games as a 10-year-old. Didn’t even play that many in the summer at age 17.

Recruiting back then was based as much on hearsay as anything else. To that point: A local Memphis umpire had seen Terry play a few times and also was friendly with the coaches at Arkansas and Ole Miss.

“They never saw me play,” Terry said. “They called me up and said, `We hear you’re pretty good. You interested?’”

He laughs at that story now and wants it on the record that Brent’s and Joshua’s talent probably came from the other side of the family. Their mother, Lynne, was a tennis player at U of M.

“She was the athlete in the family,” Terry said. “I was just a big lug they told, `Go back there, put the gear on, and squat.’”

This year’s MLB Draft starts on June 12. Terry, Lynne, Joshua, other family members and friends will be with Brent awaiting the phone call that signals the beginning of the rest of his baseball story that started with playing for Dad at sparkling youth baseball complexes that Terry could not have even imagined, while winning one toy trophy after another.

“I’m going to be a blubbering idiot,” the father/coach/old catcher said. “I’m not afraid to admit it, I cry a lot. I won’t be able to talk.

“You watch your kid work to fulfill his dream … and it will just be overwhelming.”

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