FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The odds are pretty good the New York Grays 17u won't still be playing at the 17u PG BCS Finals when the first round of the playoffs begin on Thursday, July 18. The Grays 17u, based in the Bronx, N.Y., are not favored to win their pool championship in either end of the two sets of three pool-play games, including the second set that would secure them a playoff berth.
There won't be dozens of scouts gathered behind home plate with radar guns and stopwatches when the Grays are playing. Perfect Game scouts will dutifully document their successes and letdowns, but not very many other people will be much interested in their games.
The New York Grays 17u represent the flipside of a PG national championship, the side of the tracks that the powerhouse national travel teams never visit. The Grays are low budget with relatively low expectations but don't tell any one of the players or coaches they don't belong here.
The New York Grays 17u fill their roster with players from four of New York City's five boroughs: Manhattan, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn -- all but Staten Island; there are players from Elmhurst, N.Y. and Englewood, N.J., as well. The roster is split is about 50-50 between 2014s and 2013s, although those 2013s are obviously young for their grade. They are one of nine teams from New York and New Jersey in attendance here this week.
None of the guys are highly ranked. Only outfielder Alex Cruz (2014, Elmhurst, N.Y.) is even ranked as a "high follow" by Perfect Game (although he is the No. 36 top prospect in the state of New York) and only Alexander Dash (2013, New York City) has made a college commitment -- to NCAA Division III Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn.
The organization has been around for about seven years and has produced teams that have been successful at Perfect Game tournaments through the years. The first 12u team has alumni that are playing at the NCAA Division I level now and some have been drafted, according to team general manager George Dash.
"This team, we don't have a lot of D-I prospects on this team," Dash told PG on Sunday. "Our guys are a little smaller and mostly D-III prospects, I would say, and maybe a couple of guys that will go to (junior college). But all these guys can play ball, they all love it and they're all here to show what they can do."
Dash and Grays 17u head coach Richard Corbo said they brought the team here for the opportunities and experiences a PG national championship tournament can offer these young players from the country's most populous metropolitan area.
There are the carefully manicured, lush green playing fields such as those the Grays 17u played on Sunday at the Boston Red Sox's sparkling new jetBlue Player Development Complex. There are others at the Red Sox's old Player Development 5-Plex, the Minnesota Twins' Lee County Sport Complex and even historic Terry Park and City of Palms Park near downtown. The Grays don't even have a field they can call their own back in New York.
"The last couple of years we played in a weekday league that was really hard for us because getting the kids out to a game out at Westchester at 5 o'clock in the afternoon on a weekday with rush hour and everything, it was just impossible," Dash said. "This year we're strictly a tournament team; we play in tournaments mostly in Jersey or Long Island and this is our one big trip every year."
And it's an important trip on many levels, according to Dash.
"This is our one big chance for the kids to come down and see this kind of competition and understand what's out there with regard to the really good players," he said. "And they get a chance to kind of hang out with each other at a hotel for a week."
Corbo has taught in New York City public schools for 24 years and has coached baseball at a couple of city schools for the last 15 years, the last six at Morris Academy for Collaborative Studies in the Bronx. He has built programs from the bottom up and he also operates the RPCS (Respect, Pride, Character, Sacrifice) Baseball Academy in Englewood, N.J.
Parents of some of the more promising prospects took notice of what Corbo was doing and began directing their sons toward him and his training facility. Corbo said he has also worked closely with Mike Turo, a well-known and highly respected and successful coach in New York City who also is the head coach of the Long Island Tigers that are here this week. While the two are good friends and have worked on the same high school coaching staffs, they are also rivals in the New York City area.
"He attracts a lot of talent and he's gotten a tremendous amount of accolades," Corbo said. "My challenge as a coach is to be able to survive in that environment ... and we've been a headache as a program for everyone that has been traditionally known for baseball in New York City."
Dash and Corbo try to keep the costs associated with travel ball to a minimum for the families because, for the most part, these are not wealthy families. They are still able to put together a summer schedule of right around 60 games, not counting the games they will get here this week.
"In January we get a gym and every Sunday we do workouts, and out of the workouts I begin to look at the new talent that comes in," Corbo said. "This is how we start to put the team together; some coaches recommend players or friends of players and that's basically how the recruiting process works."
The New York Grays came to this tournament two years ago with a roster of 12 that included only two players that could be identified as primary pitchers and none who considered catcher to be their primary position; the team finished 0-6. They came back last year with what Dash and Corbo considered a slightly better team, and although they were considered more competitive than the previous year, they finished 1-5.
So what will the next three or four days produce?
"This year our team is much better," Dash said. "I don't know what's going to happen, but if we were to go 3 and 3 or 4 and 2, we would be real happy. We're looking to make an improvement every year and, quite frankly, the team that we're here this year is a team that we look at ... that as long as they do what they have to do on the field, they could really play with any of these teams."
The New York Grays 17u opened play Sunday with an 8-1 loss to SCORE International 17u, a team that will be favored to reach the playoffs at this PG national championship. The Grays managed just four hits in the loss, including doubles from Isaiah Nunez (2014, Brooklyn, N.Y.) and Luiny Monegro (2014, Queens, N.Y.). SCORE International, with three 2014 prospects who have made NCAA Division I commitments, was too big, too talented.
"We are not a team that has the type of prospects that you would say would attract a whole bunch of scouts," Corbo said. "We are not a select team or an elite type of operation that imports talent. But the talent we put on the field is well-trained and they know how to play the game."
The New York Grays 17u will be back at Monday, determined to win their remaining five pool-play games. They really have nothing to lose.