Who is that guy? The journey to Junior College baseball

Increasingly greater numbers of our young baseball players are choosing or at least considering the college option in United States rather than placing their sporting aspirations in the beguiling - albeit largely illusory - dream of a professional baseball career.

 

From his first-hand experiences, Australian baseball parent Tim McCallum can sense a certain “awakening” among players – and parents of players – about the college possibilities and about the intensive research that is fundamental to making appropriate, considered decisions.

 

Tim McCallum has written at length about his, and his family’s college baseball journey in this feature for Australian Baseball Alumni.

Tim McCallum

January 2016

 

There is always some guy who someone knows somewhere who will speak to someone in the US for you regarding a US college option for your son somewhere.

 

Who is that guy? Where is that guy? For most parents and young Australian baseballers, such a guy is a myth when it matters. As the final year of high school looms in Australia, as the MLB Academy experience fades, as the National Championships end, as wet weather further contracts the limited number of baseball games anticipated in the spring and summer of Australia…anxiety… the scouts' radar guns have been turned off. The mobile phone stands silent.

Other myths, concerns and unknowns circle like sharks in a murky pond… attending four year or two year colleges, the best academic or best baseball colleges, redshirting, parity of academics if/when they return to Australia, Division I, II or III college choices, wood bats – metal bat leagues, deferring university here (one year maximum) and on it goes…like a broken record – or a broken ipod these days of course…Enough to turn a parent into an ipad frenzy with incurable Internet RSI.

 

What would your reaction be if someone told you of a really good cricketer who lives in the suburbs of Dallas Texas who wants to come to Australia to play cricket in the local First Grade team? Would you be sceptical, doubtful or dismissive? Or all three? An Australian baseballer can suffer the same fate.

 

So what matters?

 

The final high school year credential and its successful completion is critical of course. Many good players have fallen for the early school exit in Australia, forfeiting the college pathway. As we know, tenacity and resilience is the mark of any success. With its close cousin – persistence - even somewhat cruelly, what team wants someone who cannot commit or achieve a fixed goal? The academic rigour and academic endeavour matter abroad in the world of college baseball. Attitude too counts. From the dugout to the team bus, in the team environment, at the buffet and when seeking opportunities to progress one’s fledgling career.

 

Other young baseballers have played professionally in the ABL before their time, unwittingly jeopardising their amateur status needed for college eligibility, despite signing an autograph or two for a naive sunburnt kid or two. Then there are those young HSC graduates who speak of ‘gap years’ and ‘life experiences’ through college baseball. Unintentionally, the white flag is put up before they leave our sunny shores. Through this very perspective, they are destined to return home sooner rather than later. US Colleges are not child care centres. The college coach is not to be trifled with – ever.

Yet US College baseball now – in a 24/7 Internet connected world - is the preferred pathway for most of our Under 18 National Championship graduates. The impact and learning from past baseball stories of small signing bonuses for Australian baseballers who were soon cut and who have struggled to re-establish themselves once home, abound. These stories are of glory-diminished shortstops who were promised to be turned into catchers, pitchers with harrowing injuries…more stories than a nursing home Christmas luncheon. They have now been coloured by the reality of drafts and potential learning and earning longer term. A newfound reality has set in where parents and their young athletes now accept the professional signing world largely as one of premature alchemy…or an oasis in the desert, from which their son will never drink. A scout’s business card does not a professional signing make!

 

The oral traditions and history of Australian baseball have been refined further in recent times through modern technology, passed along to the young even more freely through the royalty of Australian baseball alumni, through Australians who are now international scouts and administrators, through former retired Australian MLB players…and through national coaches whose generosity of time and spirit has inspired a reality and a resolve in the young of the future. The advice is wise. There are plenty of stories.

 

College as an option therefore is going through a renaissance – or a pregnancy of sorts - with emerging Australian baseball families. Australian baseballers attending the Australian Schoolboys tour of 2014, and earlier, experienced the road trips, the mundane flats and plains of Arizona, the oppressive heat, the dust and storms, the lonely hum of a struggling mini-bus – and the cut and thrust of daily baseball. Some fell further in love with the game they cherish. Others wanted a defacto relationship, others searched for the prenup to ascertain whether their desire for Disneyland and Universal Studios was as passionate as their desire for dusty dugouts and tough competition in the distant parts of rural US backwaters.

 

Such opportunities also threw up scenarios where some families of local American kids who billeted the team members were rejecting very sizeable $US signing bonuses to pursue their college dreams. This awakening has sparked new young Australian baseball thinking.

 

The two year Junior College where an Australian baseballer may play regularly and excel, sure beats a four year university ($50K per year for a full fee paying international student) which has offered a small or no scholarship - and then does not provide a freshman with an opportunity to play. The Junior College route is the common one for these reasons. Thrive and the ambition and hope is that four year universities come knocking, hopefully with scholarships in hand. The US Junior College opportunity to excel for two years (or less) and be absorbed into a four year US university set up is the preferred option. Thoughts of college drafts are a distant glimmer.

 

However, the College route for an Australian baseballer and their family is an amoeba, changing shape and form, appearing settled yet becoming startlingly uneasy at other times. The state of California also restricts scholarships for our boys - rendering it an unfavourable option. The destination, the accommodation, the tuition…the video…the references…The drive of the athlete to seek out conversations with older or experienced past US College players, to explore US Colleges online, learn the structure, subscribe to the Collegiate Baseball newspaper and genuinely engage in the process is critical. Sometimes humility calls to those who would prefer a (non-existent) fat signing bonus.

 

First, the US junior college location. What region? Clearly the southern states of Texas, Arizona, Georgia, Louisiana and Florida (eg. Region 8) provide hot, humid conditions for year round baseball programs. A baseball is a hard ball to find on snow.

 

They also provide some of the sternest competition in the country and a tantalising chance to prove your worth in a fine theatre of talent. This appeals to four year universities and to scouts buzzing in and out of southern states, the Dominican and various junior MLB leagues and conferences like demented bees. A distant college, in a dreary town where boredom and homesickness are the enemies to success, will be offered to you. Parent safety concerns in a gun-laden society are another genuine worry for an Australian baseballing family. However, has the athlete been out of parent sight and reach before? How resilient are they? How committed are they? How mature are they? What of the temptations of alcohol, girls, niteclubs and the like…? Trust. Belief.

The Australian baseball oral traditions tell us that you “put a video together and send it to coaches at the colleges of your choice”….What sort of video? What angles and resolution? Which coach? Ironically, sending a poor quality, amateurish video to a college baseball coach who sees hundreds of videos a week, could actually hurt your chances.

 

So the decisions range from sending video and written material privately to colleges, taking a Showcase tour through the USA with an Australian organisation or provider, linking up with existing colleges which have Australian players or even taking your own athlete on the road through the USA and arranging trials and visits to colleges yourself. Necessarily armed with a videocamera at a suburban ground, the baseball parent can suddenly look more like a knob than someone with a handle on things.

 

Yet nothing beats your own son forging his own path as an emerging baseballer. Do you really need to be at a college with lots of other Australians? When do you step up and break free? What is the best standard of baseball that you can attain? This will be revealed in the standard of your references as a possible College signing. Which significant baseball hearts and minds has your son impressed? Who will speak with resolve and purpose about his credentials? Who believes in him? This matters more than you can imagine.

 

As Anatole France said, “To achieve great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe”.

 

Whatever the route, it will cost – time, peace of mind or financially, sometimes all three. Perhaps it needs to be seen by a near broke baseballing parent as an investment on the back of the numerous trips, tours, bats, clinics, camps and other experiences already troubling the bank manager over many years. One parent recently was overheard saying of their eighteen year old (soon to be finished high school) athlete, “we’ve invested so much already…this needs to be part of it…and we have no Nationals to pay next year! We want to know that we gave him every opportunity. No regrets”.

 

The other burgeoning area of interest is local enterprising Australian businesses, promising US baseball college opportunities. Sometimes costing up to $5K. A good business model, but typically with no broad US knowledge of their market place, rules and expertise. School and coach knowledge is essential. Some of these organisations do not even know baseball, specialising in football or basketball. Careful scrutiny is required. The number of colleges is immeasurable, but the number of poor choices from well meaning parents is even greater.

 

The use of home grown USA college recruitment companies, like Sportsforce (http://www.sportsforceonline.com/athletes) presents a local US option for Australian baseball families which costs (by the hour or in a package) but which genuinely reaches professionally to two year and four year college coaches, armed with local knowledge and insight. They complete a video for you (with your footage via Dropbox), package up your athlete’s key details, statistics, advise on referees you need, provide data on college options…they know the system. You are buying their local knowledge and their expertise from right across the USA. They know coaches and they know how to attract their eye. They present your son as a credible, professional option, but cannot sugercoat a melon. They provide you with data on college interest and advice at every step of the journey. Some journeys will be popular and fast…others slow and laboured.

 

Whatever the pathway, the college coach remains interested (or disinterested) in the athlete only – not the parent. Excessive parent enthusiasm can be a nuisance, a piercing warning bell, a sign of trouble. Parents need to encourage, support but not overburden or interfere. The college coach wants a committed athlete and student – not a committed parent. Private correspondence from an interested coach to an athlete’s email address is common. You are on the outer, so get used to it. The use of Skype or Facetime is common too. The coach matters. Choice of colleges, if choice exists, can rest heavily on whether the coach is a pitching expert, a hitting wonder or a cantankerous nark. The coach who sees potential, who has done his research, who believes in your son and in the American dream for an underdog, is gold.

 

All college scholarships are for one year – renewable with the desired level of fitness, scholastic aptitude, behaviour and form. Some colleges will offer a “full ride” (tuition, books, accommodation, food), others offer derivatives of this and percentages of this. Each college has a limited number of baseball scholarships to offer. They too are rare gold – particularly in a good, competitive southern state region – with a college that has strong academic priority and a sound baseball team. An academic scholarship supplementation to a baseball scholarship can also assist if your athlete doubles as a student of high merit. It can enhance your son’s chances.

 

So from March this year, a new flurry of emails, an exchange of questions and answers, a Skype call or two and then an agreement…an understanding emerges, sometimes as early as July/August when the US College schooling year (prior to your starting year) is just commencing. Nothing is official before January 15 of the next year.

 

And so it is. A waiting game of trust and decided uncertainty commences. However a US college coach’s credibility is a serious and strong matter of principle, which defeats the typical Australian perspective when the words of Team Cushman in Jerry Maguire…“My word is stronger than oak”… are feared. Cultural differences are to be valued and appreciated.

Suddenly greater certainty arrives. January 15 2016 is the National Junior College Athletic Association signing day (http://www.njcaa.org/member_colleges/college-directory). Official documents are communicated, signed and returned. A day when promises are fulfilled by athlete and Junior College alike and airline company websites are more popular than Santa Claus. Calendars become well thumbed items of simultaneous hope and uncertainty, confusion and doubt, fear and excitement.

 

Negotiations with colleges stretching back well into the March of the previous year are settled, undertakings are solidified and parents start to appreciate that their own future is about to change as their son seeks opportunity and measured avenues of possible glory abroad. Continuous baseball, sprinkled with off season Summer Ball opportunities in the more historic northern American states to further refine one’s skills, is the new lifestyle. Visas, health insurance arrangements, letters of intent and college academic choices are finalised. Accommodation and travel arrangements are sorted.

 

The world of US Junior College arrives in July/August (sometimes a year after your initial agreement was made) and with it, a concerted understanding to become stronger and fitter than you have ever been in readiness for the pre-season running and ‘breaking’ of the athlete arrives. A fit, game-ready athlete is very important. Determination and resolve to impress and improve is critical from the start. Running, bike riding, weights, long toss, hitting daily…none of it stops. It increases. Indeed, a parent’s throwing arm should become a muscular specimen and no longer does it just need to be strong to open the wallet.

The work of the Alumni here with mentors and with information for families and young baseballers has become more critical as our connections with the world are broadened. Our young players are in more ready, alert and agile hands.

 

“That the powerful play goes on and you may contribute a verse. ... What will your verse be?”…. (O Me! O Life! - Walt Whitman). 

 

 

Australian Baseball Alumni thanks Tim McCallum sincerely for writing and supplying this feature, which we have no doubt will be a wonderful resource and talking point for those young players and their parents considering the options available to them in baseball - and in life more broadly.