In Defense of the “Select Baseball” Concept

I used to think the whole “select” baseball team concept was a tad overrated and certainly overpriced,  a way for a few adults to make money off families with promises of getting their talented young son on the radar of college and pro scouts.

I used to believe for certain that if there was some hotshot, rocket-armed kid out there slinging it 90 miles per hour—even if he played for some Class 1 school in the hills where the theme from “Deliverance” was their official school fight song—the NCAA Division I coaches and the pro scouts would somehow always manage to find him.

After all, once upon a time, they found Jim Winn at Clever High School. And Barry Short at Mansfield High School. And Kennie Steenstra at Plato High School. And Jason Hart of Fair Grove. All, as far as I know, without having to travel thousands of miles across the country to be seen.

Scott Puryear

But then the more I listen to former Logan-Rogersville High School baseball standout Seth Conner recall the amazing path he took from just another good high school player to signing a professional contract late last summer with the Toronto Blue Jays, the more I’ve got to believe that “select” baseball is fast becoming like AAU basketball—if it’s not already there.

For those who want to “get somewhere,” perhaps, a necessary step.

Because, in this high-tech age where every kid with a dream is flooding college coaches with highlight DVDs, emails and recommendations from scouting services that often simply get tossed aside because they don’t have time to sift through every one of them, something has to separate the haves from the have-nots in terms of the legitimate, top-shelf college and pro skills.

Today’s young baseball hopefuls have to find a way to be seen. Not on tape. In person.

Sure, word can still circulate to the point where the college scouts might find their way to a small rural town for a live look-see at a prospect during the high school season.

And don’t get me wrong…I’m still a huge believer in what those prep coaches do for four years to get their players ready for their shot. The chance to play with other top area and regional standouts on an all-star “select” team will never carry the emotion of, say, going to a Final Four with the group of buddies you’ve spent your whole childhood going to school with and waiting for that moment.

But now, because of time constraints for the coaches, a top prospect had better find a way to almost recruit the college and pro scouts themselves, instead of the other way around.

And the only sure-fire way to do that? Be seen. Go where they are, not wait for them to come to you.

Today’s college coaches and pro scouts are much more likely to show up at, say, the Golden Corral buffet of baseball talent than they are at a place with a one-item menu. They want to see this kid that they’re either going to invest a scholarship in worth thousands of dollars, or maybe a signing bonus worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, play against other top prospects, as opposed to seeing him take deep the offerings from a pitcher who’ll be stocking shelves at Wal-Mart the next couple of years.

Give Conner credit for figuring this out at just the right time.

As a Rogersville sophomore, Seth was a big, strong kid with plenty of potential and the intangibles (attitude, work ethic, demeanor) any coach would love to have…but he still needed that extra boost to stand out.

Realizing we run the risk of turning this column into an infomercial, he hooked up with the Midwest Nationals and coach Randy Merryman. He played three summers with the elite club, the best of the best in a three-state region, getting his face and skills out there for the scouts to see at the surplus of baseball meat markets the Nationals visit each summer.

He spent the fall of his senior year trying to get bigger, faster and stronger, working on his technique and attempting  to convince the scouts that he was better than he showed the summer before with the Nationals. Merryman got Conner invites to some of the more prestigious showcase events, including the World Wood Bat Tournament down in Florida, and once there, Conner delivered the goods.

Pop in the bat. Bigger (20 pounds), stronger body that projected more power. And an attitude that would make Tim Tebow want to be more like Seth Conner.

Meanwhile, Merryman, in almost a Scott Boras-like impersonation, went to work on creating the PR buzz among the scouts, college coaches—and the media—about this special talent at Rogersville who was a draft steal waiting to happen.

Hey, don’t fault him…that’s exactly what all those parents who sign their kids up with a program like the Nationals are expecting, and paying, him to do—use those connections. Remind the scouts and coaches about the Scott Elberts and Lucas Harrells and Brett Sinkbeils you’ve churned out and sent to the big leagues, and then let them know about the next one you’ve found.

In this case, it was Conner.

He signed an NCAA letter-of-intent with Missouri State, a great fall-back plan just in case his pro baseball dream never materialized. But lo and behold, it did. After a prep season in which he hit nearly .500, slammed 11 homers and drove in 40 runs—while leading Rogersville to its first Final Four appearance—Conner was picked in the 41st round by the Blue Jays.

After a summer of negotiations and deliberating one last time whether he wanted to go the college route for three years and then try the pro draft again, a now 6-foot-2, 205-pound Conner is on his way to Dunedin, Fla., for his first spring training, where Toronto will give him a look at third base and possibly as a catcher.

Conner’s view, looking back, on “select” baseball? He often wonders where he might be now without it.

“I obviously think it’s huge,” he says with a smile. “Coach Merryman and his staff had a very good track record of producing high draft picks and guys who would get Division I college offers. He was able not only to get me seen by pro scouts, but by college scouts as well, and he was the one who was creating the buzz about me personally.

“The competition out there (select baseball) is just at a higher level,” he added. “And those scouts want to see how you compete with other athletes at that upper echelon and who are trying to get to the same place you are. It definitely prepares you for the mindset of what college and minor-league baseball is all about.”

Which sounds eerily like some of the same things college coaches say about AAU basketball. And high-level club soccer. And club volleyball. And…

Yes, “select” baseball is here to stay. Parents, get those checkbooks out. Because, just like everything else these days, you get what you pay for.

Originally published in the March 2011 issue of Ozark Preps Illustrated.

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