MDN: Dream a Baseball Dream
Memphis is Hoops City, a hotbed of premier basketball talent. That’s why University of Memphis basketball coach Tubby Smith is under pressure…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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’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.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.