It is that time of year… students are returning to their high schools after a summer of baseball, readying themselves for the academic rigors of a new school year. Some seniors have already committed to colleges, many others continue the process. Juniors and Sophomores engage in scuttlebutt about “this guy” or “that guy” who is being recruited by some big university in the south. A few Juniors, and even Sophomores, are getting “offers,” sometimes with pressure from college coaches to “take it or leave it, or else we will move on to others.” The pressure mounts. What does it all mean? And how much does it all matter?
In the Ruffnecks program we do our best to meet with every player to discuss academic and college aspirations. Commonly, the initial response to the question of “What are your goals and aspirations?” is “I want to play Division 1, and I want to go south.” Indeed, we have talented and focused players in the Ruffnecks program, many of whom can and will play Division 1 (whether they go south or not). However, this frenzy and anxiety is rooted in the pressures from parents, peers, and the “noise” of recruiting services, prospect camps, and empty promises of national, select, teams that claim to wave a magic wand and deliver a D-1 scholarship. One such organization, here in New England, is even dangling the carrot of “playing for your country” to 12, 13, and 14 year olds… Taking 13 year olds to a national training complex in North Carolina in September? A 13 year old? Really? Is this funded by the United States Olympic Committee, or is it simply another pay-to-play opportunity?
The problem is that reality and expectations do not always align. The Ruffnecks certainly contribute to the problem. How? We boast the accomplishments of our alums. We communicate how many Ruffnecks have been drafted. We tweet the commitments of players to big schools. We fall into the trap. But we also work tirelessly to combat the problem by working with families to understand the process. We build TEAMS not Showcase Teams. We foster a culture in which it is fun to travel, play baseball, and be among athletes of like-minded goals and aspirations. We hope that the friendships forged through the Ruffnecks experience endure. But the problem constantly looms on the horizon. Parents (and players) want their kids to get a baseball scholarship, go down south, or to “use baseball to get into a better school.” Great, but few really have a smooth path.
The problem is also nurtured by organizations and programs that boast “Division 1″ or “draft picks” among players who may have worn that team’s uniform for a single event, or a single tournament. Again… Really? New teams, old teams, coaches, make claims that they get kids scholarships or get kids D-1 commitments in order to recruit for their team or program. And face it, schools do the same thing. They measure and promote themselves by how many IVY League admissions they get, or their median or mean SAT scores. The world may not change. But we can try to catch ourselves, recalibrate, and take a deep breath.
The solution lies in the reality that most baseball players of high purpose and focus will find themselves in schools and college baseball environments that are fulfilling. Certainly, most Ruffnecks players will find their way. However, the Ruffnecks will not recruit players to this program with promises that we can deliver anything other than an opportunity to reach those goals and aspirations. We do not deliver scholarships. We do not deliver D-1 guarantees. We hope we deliver a journey in which the phone calls to home are punctuated by, “I really like it here.” The solution also lies in the reality that Division I baseball is not for everyone, and many Division III players are perfectly capable of playing at some Division I schools. The challenge is to find the school that meets an individual’s academic and athletic aspirations.
The solution also continues to reside in the ability of parents to “chill” as the expression goes. In several of our year-end conferences we hear the parents do most of the talking, despite the fact their sons are 16 or 17 years old and know our preference that it be the player’s journey. And the look of anxiety on parents’ faces far exceeds what shows on the player’s face. Indeed, parents have legitimate questions that deserve to be answered. But conversations that are steered by parents and not the player are less productive than when the player has focus and purpose. The definition of success as a parent is not tied to the outcome of a collegiate baseball roster spot for a son. It is, after all, a game to be played for fun and what it means to our American culture, heritage, and to fulfill our competitive instincts.
Our favorite story continues to be the Tucker Healy story. Tucker was one of the original Ruffnecks in 2003 when the program had none of the reputation it currently enjoys. Tucker graduated high school in 2008 with no scholarship offers and no recruiting offers at all. He was captain, short stop, and sometimes pitched for his high school. He played 1B, 2B, and sometimes pitched for the Ruffnecks in his last few years. Certainly, not a steady script. Tucker went to Division III Ithaca College, where his mother went. He became a pitcher, only. He could not get a summer baseball roster spot on any of the known collegiate summer leagues after his freshman year in college. He went home to play Legion baseball. Between his sophomore year and junior year he got a spot in the NECBL. Between his junior year and senior year he got a spot in the Cape Cod League. He did not get drafted after his junior year, as most pro prospects do. He was selected by the Oakland Athletics after he graduated from Ithaca. He has progressed all the way to Triple A. He may be the first Ruffnecks alum to get a moment in the Major Leagues… but that remains to be seen. Wouldn’t that be a fine story?