This is a baseball story, published on a preeminent baseball scouting, recruiting and event website that will realistically be read by several thousand baseball players, parents, coaches, scouts, trainers and others with a profound interest in the game. But to Sam Marsonek’s way of thinking, this really isn’t a story about baseball at all – it’s about something much bigger.
The 35-year-old Marsonek is the director of baseball operations and a head coach at SCORE International, a not-for-profit organization that is in reality a Christian ministry that also happens to field highly competitive travel ball teams. The rosters of those teams are filled with ballplayers from the United States, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic and Venezuela that have banded together behind a common belief system.
“The whole motive is not just baseball at all; it’s not just exposure and all that stuff,” Marsonek told PG in a recent telephone conversation from SCORE International’s home in Tampa, Fla. “It’s more an investment in the players and the coaches spiritually, as well as character building.
“We’re getting them prepared for either college or pro ball, but we really want to be intentional in investing in guys beyond just the game,” he explained. “We have a staff that has good hearts and they really want to help impact the younger players.”
SCORE is an acronym for a phrase that represents the organization’s Christian ministry status: Sharing Christ Our Redeemer. It is that simple phrase that provides the foundation of the ministry’s mission.
SCORE’s success on the field is more easily identifiable than its spiritual success if, in fact, the level of a young person’s spirituality can be deemed a success or a failure. SCORE International started fielding teams at PG BCS and PG WWBA tournaments in the summer of 2012 and those teams rapidly became not only highly competitive but even more highly respected.
In terms of wins and losses – which Marsonek insists is of little consequence – no SCORE International team reached the final four at a Perfect Game tournament in 2013, but SCORE teams finished second at the 2012 PG WWBA Florida Qualifier and third at the 2012 17u PG BCS Finals.
SCORE International made its PG WWBA World Championship debut in Jupiter, Fla., late last month, and with a roster of Floridians that boasts eight prospects that have already made college commitments, won its pool championship – wins came over the “favored” Syracuse Sports Zone, East Cobb Baseball and the South Charlotte Panthers. SCORE advanced to the elite round-of-16 playoffs, and once there it dropped a nail-biting 2-1 decision to the eventual tournament champion EvoShield Canes.
The Internationals didn’t hit worth a lick in Jupiter (.229 as a team with three extra-base hits in five games), although South Florida recruit Jacob McFadden (2014, Seminole, Fla.) hit .357 with two RBI and two runs scored.
They pitched much better, with right-hander Ronny Orta (2014, Brandon, Fla.) and lefty Matthew Meyer (2014, Palm Bay, Fla.) combining to allow one earned run over nine innings (0.77 ERA) on eight hits with 12 strikeouts and one walk. Orta, a top-500 national prospect, has committed to State College of Florida and Meyer, top-1,000, to Campbell University.
“All of the Perfect Game events that we’ve been in have been phenomenal and the competition has been really good,” Marsonek said. “The Jupiter event was amazing, not only for our players but for us as coaches, just being able to have our kids play up against some of the best (high school players) in the country.
“Our kids are reminded that there is no pressure in the game; pressure comes from things you put on yourself,” he continued. “Our kids that are believers trust that God is in control … and it gives (them) the freedom to go out there and compete and not worry about who’s watching and who’s not watching.”
Four former SCORE International prospects were selected in the 2013 MLB First-Year Player Draft, and three of them signed. The signees included outfielder Jacob Cordero, a Puerto Rican and an 11th round pick of the New York Mets; Florida right-hander Nelson Zulueta, 22nd round, Seattle Mariners; and Florida first baseman Brandon Brosher, 36th round, New York Mets.
Right-hander Nick Eicholtz from Odessa, Fla., was a 29th round selection of the Milwaukee Brewers but opted to honor his commitment to the University of Alabama.
Perhaps even more impressively, eight SCORE International alumni from the Dominican Republic signed international free agent contracts this year. Among the most prominent, outfielder Eloy Jimenez received a $2.8 million signing bonus from the Chicago Cubs; third baseman Luis Encarnacion got $1 million from the Philadelphia Phillies; and outfielder Nicolas Pierre received $800,000 from the Brewers.
“There is no doubt that our kids are sold on playing as hard as they can – American kids and Latin kids,” Marsonek said. “I have not had an issue with a kid with his effort or his attitude, (and) we tell them upfront that we’re doing things a little bit different. That basically just means that you’re going to respect the game, your opponents, your teammates, the umpires and you’re just going to play hard.”
SAM MARSONEK WAS SELECTED WITH THE 24TH OVERALL PICK IN THE FIRST ROUND of the 1996 MLB First-Year Player Draft by the Texas Rangers right out of Tampa Jesuit High School. He was soon traded to the New York Yankees.
After eight seasons in the minor leagues, the 6-foot-6, 225-pound right-hander made his major league debut in July 2004 and pitched 1 1/3 scoreless innings of relief. He suffered a non-baseball related injury three days later and never pitched in the big leagues again. Marsonek officially retired from professional baseball in 2008 and set out to help young ballplayers become better equipped for life through both baseball and an unshakeable faith and spirituality.
"(I wanted) to invest in young people and try to impact their lives, not only on the field but most importantly as men and hopefully as Godly men," Marsonek told PG in 2012. "One day the game is over and most of us don't expect it to end when it ends, so I just want to give them a good foundation. That's why I'm here. I made a lot of mistakes as a player and now I'm just trying to guide them the best way that I can."
Damon Oppenheimer is the Yankees’ amateur scouting director and in a testimonial on SCORE International’s website noted that he scouted Marsonek from his senior year in high school all the way through the conclusion of his professional career.
“The transformation I saw from a careless young man to one of the most caring men I know is astounding,” Oppenheimer wrote. “The opportunity that Sam is providing to young men will be invaluable not only on the baseball field … but also developing them to be men who will have proper values in life.”
Developing a system of sound values is a top priority for the SCORE International staff, which includes six coaches that played professionally, four of them in the majors (including Marsonek). The other former big-leaguers are Gary Glover, Ramiro Mendoza and Brian Reith.
“Baseball is not just talent,” Marsonek said. “In baseball, there is a lot of heart involved, commitment, dedication and we’ve been fortunate that a lot of our kids have got that desire and passion and we just kind of direct that. As players, there are things they can work on and get better and once the kids become aware of not just not themselves but the game and what’s it all about, it becomes a lot easier.”
THE SCORE INTERNATIONAL ORGANIZATION IS IN NEGOTIATIONS WITH a Tampa-area landowner to secure about 50 acres of real estate off of Interstate 4 in Tampa where it hopes to build a four-field complex. The group is also hoping to have available funds to construct an indoor training facility and dormitories to house many of the international players who join the SCORE ministry.
“It would be a place where all the international kids can come and stay and we can work with them all summer,” Marsonek said. “We could host some of our own smaller events right here in-house and we could kind of intertwine everything with our high school guys and our pro guys that live here in the area.”
The international players stay with SCORE for two months over the summer so it is not necessary for them to enroll in local schools. In 2013, about 55 percent of the SCORE players are local with the rest coming from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Puerto Rico.
“We also think it’s unique in the fact that guys that have a chance to play pro ball are getting used to playing with kids from other countries,” Marsonek said. “One of our kids that’s with the Mets, Brandon Brosher, he traveled and stayed in the same hotel rooms with guys that didn’t speak English, and that was really good for him.”
SCORE International also gets its players involved a variety of service projects. The group recently completed a program called the Hunger Project where they packaged more than 20,000 meals that were sent to a small village in West Africa that fed hundreds of school children that otherwise would have gone hungry.
The organization is currently involved with its Christmas Toy Drive that benefits 20 families from a Tampa public housing project. The players and their families will “adopt” a family from the housing project and will distribute many of the gifts a couple of days before Christmas. Other gifts will be given to the parents who in turn can give them to the kids on Christmas morning. The giving is especially commendable because many of the SCORE International players do not enjoy a high living standard themselves.
Marsonek estimated that about 40 percent of his American players and nearly 90 percent of the Latin players do not have the resources necessary to participate in travel ball and are in need of financial assistance. That support comes from all corners within the community, including local businesses and from former teammates of Marsonek’s from his playing days.
“Families that have been through our program the last couple of years, they help me raise some money,” Marsonek said. “Once people see the value in what we’re doing both on and off the field they’ve been very generous.”
WHILE FUND-RAISING WILL ALWAYS BE A PRIORITY, so is getting more international prospects involved with the ministry while also continuing to accommodate the faith-based needs of the American kids who participate.
Marsonek is a friend of Amauris Nina, a Dominican who started the International Prospect League several years ago and who guides many of the top young Dominican prospects towards SCORE International. Marsonek also works with a separate group in Venezuela in an effort to attract prospects and SCORE is looking to expand its reach to Japan and Panama.
“We’re trying to get kids from all over,” he said. “… We really want to impact kids from all over the world for the Gospel; it really has nothing to do with baseball, as weird as that might sound. That’s just the vehicle that we use to reach the kids; that’s our background. All of our (coaches) played for a long time and that’s kind of where we feel called to, to stay on the field and keep working with young players.”
This is a baseball story that’s about much more than baseball. It’s about a Christian ministry that uses baseball to spread the word while helping to mold teenagers into value-driven young adults, and if a college scholarship or a professional contract is a byproduct of that effort, well, that’s all the better.
“We haven’t had any character issues; it’s been phenomenal the last two years,” Marsonek said. “I want to get more kids involved and I want to get more kids exposed to what we’re trying to do. I think the more people that hear about what we’re doing, hopefully they’ll want to be a part of something bigger than just baseball.”