Today I have to pinch myself. My son, was just offered a roster spot to play college baseball. It’s not South Carolina or Texas or Stanford, rather a small, Division 3, upstate New York school; but, it still marks the culmination of a father’s and his son’s dream.
It all started at 4 years-old when my son and I discovered a shared love for something that would transcend even the most difficult teen years to follow – baseball. Even then he was a New York Mets fan. He made me and his mother pitch a wiffle ball to him for countless hours, so he could hit the entire Mets batting order (each player, by the way, from the appropriate side of the plate). Alas, my first disappointment came on Father’s Day of his 5th year, when he went to old Yankee Stadium for the first time. Predictably, like the “awakening” that most Christians get from entering St. Patrick’s Cathedral, he became a Yankee Fan.
Regardless, from his tee ball at 5 years-old to the present day our weekends, summer and fall, have been filled with travel team games and tournaments – with only a brief interlude for the holidays and then straight back to winter workouts – sometimes starting at 6:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning.
Then came school ball, and his intensity and commitment continued and heightened as we juggled our work schedules, so we could make every game at any location. Before long there came the decision that he wished to play at the college level. We had to come to the realization that D1 baseball was not in the cards, but rather D2 and D3 offered the appropriate opportunity and had the added benefit of a serious “academics first” flavor.
Always being more than a competent player with an unbelievable understanding, knowledge and feel for the game, my son appeared to be a viable candidate for the success I could only hope for as a youth but did not have the talent to achieve.
Also, D3 baseball presented an opportunity for a college experience with structure, organization, support and socialization, that could allow him to thrive and eliminate any possibility of abusing his freedom by lying in bed, eating chicken wings and watching ESPN 10 hours a day. To that end, we had a destination but no road or direction of how to get there. This is where the real journey began.
In discussion with many “professionals” in baseball, it became apparent that the day of a college recruiter coming to watch high school games was over. The recruitment game was now one of self-promotion, where a player would have to develop and implement his own strategy to get himself a “look.” It appeared that the answer was to attend events called college showcases. Showcases are two-day baseball marathons of skills display and simulated games that are attended by a bevy of college coaches.
The question soon became which showcases to attend? One showcase company, Perfect Game, appeared to be geared more to the 6’ 3” 200-pound, D1 candidate. Following much research and deliberation we decided on Headfirst, which is geared to the scholar athlete. After his first two Headfirst showcases in Florida, during November of his junior year and the subsequent summer of his senior year, the quality and delivery of the event paid dividends.
It was at the November showcase where we met and subsequently engaged a “consultant” for my son’s effort, namely, the Diamond College Advisory Team (DCAT). Principal owner, Justin Cronk, proved more valuable than any high school guidance counselor. The main point that Cronk made in his initial conference call was that he did not want to hear from us, his parents. To be sure, it was a wake-up call for all of us.
This was something my son had to have enough desire and commitment to do, and he was to be responsible for taking all the action. Cronk amplified this point, as painful as it was for my boy to hear it, by meticulously and honestly going through his evaluation of his skills. Interestingly enough, DCAT was the only entity at Headfirst rating the kids, but only for their own use in assessing potential DCAT candidates. DCAT maintains that if a player’s desire is great enough to want to pay ball, there is a school to be found where he can play. It might be in the Yukon, but invariably there is a school to match with a player.
Coach Cronk gave us a list of 25 “reachable” schools. He also evaluated my son’s curriculum and academic transcript, and told him what his grades needed to be in order to succeed at the next level. Mom and I credit Coach Cronk with pushing our son to continue a Spanish curriculum through his senior year in high school. In addition, Coach laid out a game plan of strength building, nutrition and training to add 20 pounds of lean, flexible muscle to his frame by August of that year. Our young baseball hopeful had to email weekly progress reports to Coach Cronk – no copies to his parents, incidentally – from January through May, including his classroom performance, during the school baseball season.
Next came the “recruitment kickoff” conference call in early June, in which Coach detailed the “Summer of Seriousness,” when it was “pedal to the metal” to achieve our goals. First and foremost in this plan was a list of showcases that we were to attend, as well as the development of his player profile, or baseball resume. By the end of August, we also had the task of developing a video to include in his profile.
Coach Cronk also shared some “special tips,” such as faxing our package rather than emailing it – college coaches will get 200 emails but only 3 “pieces of paper” – then placing a follow-up phone call and leaving a voicemail late at night. According to Coach, this yielded the greater probability of a call pick-up, because most college coaches work late and seriously interested coaches would in fact call back.
Faxes and emails were to be sent to the head coaches of schools where the player was interested in attending, as well as to coaches who would be attending upcoming showcases. The player would then attend the showcase with the hope of getting a “look” and having a conversation with those prospective coaches.
Following the showcase and after gauging a school’s interest, the “Big Kielbasa” is developed – i.e., an email, video and player profile – which is then sent to the five or six schools where both a coach and the player have demonstrated a mutual interest. All this takes place in late August-early September, in hopes of generating interest on the school’s part, preliminary to the player visiting the school. The aim here is to obtain an invitation to the school’s prospect camp, which usually occurs in September or October, thus amounting to a fall “tryout.”
If the entire process sounds complicated and involved, that’s because it is; and, without DCAT, we as parents would have had no effective plan to help our son attain his goals.
Parents and young players must understand that the primary value of the Headfirst showcase experience lies in its emphasis on academic success first and success in baseball second. Among other realities, Headfirst stresses that playing at the next level is a gift that very few athletes attain and, once achieved, cannot be taken away from you. In this respect, success in college baseball and success in life have many similarities. For one, personal growth can happen, but only through acceptance of personal responsibility and a disciplined approach. Emerging from this strong foundation can then be a well-rounded, goal-directed individual who has the tools to succeed in the real world, not just in the world of baseball or sports generally.
Headfirst’s commitment to a superior product is evidenced by showcasing over 600 kids in 6 days to over 75 coaches at Baseball Heaven, located on Long Island. It is an event where coach after coach has remarked, “Where am I going to see 600 Kids of this caliber in one place over 6 days?”
The professionalism, organization, structure and mission of Headfirst is unparalleled in businesses ten times their size and with ten times their resources. The integrity they exhibit is evident by the fact that a well-known college program violated DCAT’s recruitment “ethics” code and was subsequently banned from participating in Headfirst events for a year. You cannot help but be impressed with the fact that, at Headfirst principle supersedes patronage, merit trumps marketing, and dedication overshadows dollars and cents.
We hope that our son’s story serves as a baseball recruitment guide to other parents who have children with talent, heart, determination, and drive to achieve their goals, in sports and in life. The world of sports recruitment and advancement, especially at the college level, stands before promising, young athletes like a thick, complex forest where they have only a Swiss army knife for survival. It was only through the counseling, guidance, and support of consummate professionals like Justin Cronk and organizations such as DCAT and HeadFirst that a baseball dad collaterally realized his dream and his son was able to realize his.
Baseball is a life lesson. A unique combination of grace, poise and power, it is the most beautiful sport in the world – one where David can defeat Goliath by integrating and matching different pieces into a finely tuned, efficient machine called a team. It gives the tin man a heart and allows everyone to go home.
It is a game but a game that allows you to live your dream. “It’s a beautiful day for a ball game; let’s play 2.”