Ben Cohen

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Showcases Help Locals Get Exposure

Craig Anderson, sporting a royal blue T-shirt instead of Passaic Valley’s green and gold, threw his 20th pitch of the day, a tight curveball for strike three, and jogged off the mound.

After four batters and four outs in one inning, his day was done.

The plethora of scouts behind home plate – most wearing the homogenous uniform of team polo shirt, hat, and wrap-around sunglasses – looked away from the radar guns and closed their notebooks. Some scooped up their Poland Spring bottles with tobacco residue sitting at the bottom and walked away from Bainton Field on the campus of Rutgers University.

After two nine-inning games, their day was only half done.

SelectFest, the premiere baseball showcase in New Jersey, had hit its midway point after Anderson’s strikeout. Both skills day at Jack Cust Baseball Academy in Flemington and the first two contests on game day had proceeded smoothly, but, more importantly, six more games awaited the scouts on this balmy weekend in late June.

The hectic pace of the showcase scene is nothing new for coaches. Some had traveled to Fishkill, N.Y., two weeks earlier for a Perfect Game showcase, some would take in Joe Wladyka’s annual showcase at St. Joseph in Metuchen two weeks later, and some would fly to Marietta, Ga., one week later for a mammoth World Wood Bat Association tournament with 148 teams.

Baseball recruiting has become a non-stop summertime entity, much like the more-followed football combines and basketball circuits. Showcases like SelectFest, which attracted 150 players and more than 150 college coaches and professional scouts, are the crown jewels of the scene.

“The purpose is to get exposure, to become a blip on the radar screen,” said Wladyka, whose first showcase in 1985 pales in comparison to local and national events today. “In the last 20 years, maybe even less than that, showcases have taken over as the means of recruiting, the means of becoming identified, the means of being seen, for better players on a national scale. You go to one of these showcases, and you’re getting coaches from literally all over the country.”

Basic points

None of the coaches scattered at SelectFest were there to coach. Not yet, at least. Hundreds of scouts flocked to Rutgers to see the best players in the tri-state area, the kids that they will recruit to their programs in the coming months.

Most showcases are two or three days, the first of which is usually a skills day. Pitchers throw a limited number of pitches in front of a small army of radar guns. Catchers throw to second base to check their pop times (the time it takes the ball to go from the catcher’s mitt to second base). Position players run timed 60-yard dashes and hack at batting practice pitching. Infielders take ranging groundballs. Outfielders make throws to different bases.

The skills day is the most important, yet least decisive, part of the showcase. It’s where players stand out, where they can beg for more attention during non-competitive play. The next day, a scout’s eyes will gravitate toward the kid who peppered line drives all over the field the day before.

Then again, skills day only features tools. Coaches want to see a morphed version of those traits over the course of a nine-inning game.

“I prefer to really see them play in a game,” Rutgers coach Fred Hill said. “We go to the skills portion to get a good look at the skills, but then I really like to see the second day, which is game-type situations.”

“You watch the skills and see what people are capable of doing, but then you need to see those skills applied in game situations,” Montclair State coach Norm Schoenig said. “A lot of coaches and scouts will just watch skills and not watch the games. When you see the games, you’re able to evaluate what exactly a young man can do during competition. You have to be able to play in the games.”

High-caliber players compete in the games, but the competition is not necessarily of optimum quality. The high school players are more concerned with showing off individual talent, so stealing second and third in non-steal situations is common. There aren’t many non-steal situations at SelectFest, though, since there is always one out and the score is not recorded. In addition, only four players hit per inning, regardless of their production. Because of the controlled simulation, pitchers only throw two innings, and most batters are guaranteed four at-bats.

The coaches and scouts are greeted at the showcases with a thick book of player information, ranging from a pitcher’s velocity to his SAT score. Perfect Game, the “world’s largest scouting report service,” evaluates players after a showcase and publishes those results on the Internet. Some other programs send their ratings to colleges that attended the event.

The way a recruit presents himself is also just as important as the way he plays. Coaches might frown upon an un-tucked shirt even more than a lazy swing. Walking onto the field is even more anathema to scouts.

“You have to know the way to carry yourself and what the scouts do and don’t want to see,” said Pequannock rising senior pitcher Matt Jenisch, who attended SelectFest. “You have to hustle at all times. You always have to be running. You can’t wear your hat off to the side. You always have to carry yourself correctly.”

Limitations

The downside of showcase games is their obvious limitations. A pitcher can hurl two innings, but it takes some of the best starters four innings to reach their peak velocity. The next Derek Jeter may be waiting at shortstop, but he might not receive a groundball for nine innings. That sort of pressure, the thought that one misplayed relay or one bobbled groundball could potentially affect a college scholarship, might unhinge some players.

The most successful showcase players can almost ignore the guns that rise with every pitch.

“Game days are tough to try and do stuff for yourself, because you’re in a game, playing to win, and you can’t control how many balls get hit to you or if the pitcher walks you three times,” said Passaic Valley’s Jesse Santo, the 2007 Herald News Hitter of the Year who attended SelectFest last summer and will play at Polk Community College in Florida next year. “You have to make the best of it. Every little thing means a lot when you’re out there in front of the scouts.”

Some, like SelectFest co-organizer Bruce Shatel, believe that showcases favor pitchers more than position players. All a pitcher has to do is light up a radar gun to earn the attention of those watching. With eight batters, even a finesse pitcher can impress scouts with a feigned demeanor and sharp command. A surrendered home run is less detrimental than, say, an infielder’s error, because the pitcher has a chance to make up for his mistake immediately.

Anderson, a second-team All-Area selection this past spring, enjoys pitching on showcase skills day because he can fire fastballs at catchers without a batter present. Lakeland’s Brad Smith, another SelectFest attendee, prefers pitching in competitive games because he feels obligated to exhibit a full range of pitches at showcases, even though he might be able to blow his 90-mph fastball by hitters.

You hear a wide spectrum of opinions, and that’s why some coaches use showcases – both skills day and game play – to simply earmark prospects and return to see them at a later date.

“The idea of seeing them in games is how they handle themselves in adverse situations,” Schoenig said. “Do they get frustrated? How do they bounce back from not doing well early in the game to help a team win late? You don’t learn a lot from the individual on a game day of the showcase, because you’re not bunting or hitting-and-running. You’re stealing bases in a non-steal situation to see how the catchers throw. It’s not really a true evaluation of how you play the game. Some aspects are, but other aspects aren’t.”

There are other players who simply aren’t groomed for showcases. For instance, a contact hitter with good hands is unlikely to distinguish himself in a crowd of prodigious boppers.

John Wilson, a Minnesota Twins scout that runs a local showcase team and an academic showcase, points to Chris Cates, a recently-drafted shortstop from Louisville. Cates is 5-foot-3 and weighs 145 pounds, but that did not stop him from leading the Cardinals to the College World Series.

“He would not stand out at a showcase, even right now,” Wilson said of Minnesota’s 38th round pick. “That’s a kid you have to watch play and develop and affinity for.”

Worth it?

For the growing throngs of showcase supporters, there are fewer detractors.

But the main concern cited by critics is the growing cost of showcases. Over the last 20 years, the showcase industry has boomed, and over the last five years, that surge has translated to legitimate business.

Most of the local showcases have avoided that trend. SelectFest charges $325 for its three-day program, and Wladyka and Wilson both charge $295 for their two-day events.

Some of the national organizations, such as Perfect Game, are pricier. Perfect Game’s Northeast Underclass Showcase, scheduled for Aug. 10-12 in Massachusetts, will likely have a strong New Jersey contingent. Last year, 20 players from the Garden State attended. That three-day event costs $549, not including hotel fees and a video service.

If a rising junior or senior attends two or three showcases and plays for a travel team that requires dues and airfare, the sums add up quickly.

“It’s really expensive,” said Santo, who traveled to Georgia and North Carolina in a busy summer. “You have to thank your parents for everything they’ve done. It’s rough nowadays. To play competitive baseball and take yourself to the next level, it is almost unfair that it has to be that expensive for the kids that don’t have the money. It takes a toll on money in the family.”

The rising tuitions of showcases beg the question: is it worth it? After all, Division-I teams have fewer than 12 full scholarships to divide between more than 20 players. Some players need a scholarship just to break even for their summer expenses, said Wilson, who believes there are better ways to spend baseball-related money.

“The best venue for a (fringe player) is going out and playing for a good team with good exposure and for a good coach with a level head, where he will continue to learn the game,” said Wilson, whose team has sent 86 players to the college or professional ranks in the last six years. “You don’t learn from a showcase. Showcasing is not the best way. Go and continue to progress and produce your skills. Because one day, you’re going to enter the Broadway stage, and you better be able to hit those notes. One day you’re going to have to perform. And if you don’t know how because you’ve been showcasing your whole life, you’re going to crash and burn.”

Still, there aren’t many showcase-exclusive players. Most understand that they are a worthy supplement to travel teams and select leagues. Ten teams based in New Jersey flew to Georgia for the WWBA 17U National Championship. A good portion of those players also attended SelectFest or another showcase.

And although the busy schedule adds up to an expensive summer, the local players agree that it’s a viable investment, even if their efforts do not result in scholarships.

“I hope to get interests from a variety of schools, both local and far away, and hopefully get some scholarship money,” Jenisch said. “If it doesn’t happen, I’ll just have to look around for a school I like. And if I have no offers, I’ll just have to walk on. I think if we get what I want, then it’s definitely worth it. But even if I don’t, it’s good experience.”

Wave of the future

If anything, the rising cost of the summer baseball scene hints that showcases and national tournaments are not disappearing anytime soon. Gone are the seemingly innocent days of coaches stalking American Legion games or scouring professional tryouts for unfound talent.

Wladyka had no idea what he had started when his first showcase in 1985 attracted 150 players, a number that ballooned to 600 by the late 1980s.

“Sometimes, the dumbest farmers grow the biggest potatoes,” he said.

And while there are plenty of shady events, every local coach and scout agrees that SelectFest is more of a prize than a burden.

There are few other opportunities for coaches to see 150 of the best players in the area gathered on one field.

The showcases are even more necessary now with the NCAA’s more stringent recruiting rules. Coaches are forced to adhere to a dead period from Dec. 1 to March 1, in which they cannot recruit off campus. During the summer, they can make only one phone call to a recruit per week. If the player’s sister picks up and misinterprets the call as a wrong number, the coach has to wait until the next week to redial.

The recruiting process could essentially start at a showcase, but, for most players, it’s not where it ends. There are exceptions, of course. Seton Hall Prep’s Rick Porcello, a first-round draft pick, probably garnered offers on the spot because of his high-90s fastball and devastating curveball. But the norm, for most local players, is attracting attention through showcases and tournaments and using that focus to cultivate relationships.

And so when Anderson concluded his one inning of pitching, his day of baseball was over.

But if all goes to plan, his recruiting journey was just beginning.

(The Herald News, 7/21/07)

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