FORT MYERS, Fla. – The big first baseman, outfielder and right-handed pitcher literally towered over his good friend, the more diminutive second baseman.
At 6-foot-4, 253-pounds, Jack Barrie cut a striking physical presence as the 2013 Perfect Game National Underclass Showcase-Main Event got under way Saturday morning at the jetBlue Park Player Development Complex. At 5-feet-9, 161 pounds, Austin Whitehead was more suited to blending in.
But the two prospects have more in common than what initially meets the eye. They share a passion for baseball that beams bright enough to make them want to travel the more than 9,000 miles from their homes in Queensland, Australia, to be here this weekend and display their skill sets to Perfect Game’s vast scouting network.
“There aren’t that many college scouts (in Australia). There’s just a whole bunch of professional ones,” Whitehead said after completing Saturday morning’s series of workout sessions at the Main Event. “I want to get opened up to all the college scouts; get them to see me. I want to come back and go to college in the United States.”
Unlike Barrie, Whitehead is not a native Australian; he was born and raised in Texas. His father, Waylon Whitehead, works for Conoco-Phillips in the oil and gas industry and it was his job that took the family to Australia from Pearland, Texas, just as Austin was finishing up his freshman year in high school two years ago. A return trip to the States over the holidays provided a unique opportunity.
“We were coming back home (to Texas) over Christmas and we were looking for some well-run events to get the boys some exposure,” Waylon said Saturday morning. “We were familiar with Perfect Game from our time in Texas and we knew that (PG) seemed to be pretty well respected. … We felt it was a good thing to get them involved with to give them a little more exposure, which is a hard thing to get (in Australia).”
Austin Whitehead played in the 2011 PG WWBA 14u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., with the Banditos White back when the family was still living in Texas. This marks the first time he has revisited the PG experience.
“I think this will be beneficial,” he said. “There are a lot of scouts here and hopefully I’ll get their eyes on me. Hopefully …”
Barrie is an Aussie through and through, and despite a limited history with the game he is the better prospect of the two, at least at this time.
Major League Baseball has an academy not far from Whitehead’s and Barrie’s homes in Samford Valley and Maleny, respectively (the towns are near Brisbane). Barrie has been playing at the academy since he was 15 years old and has received a comparatively high level of instruction during his high school years.
Barrie equated the academy experience to that of MLB spring training. The 60 or so youngsters in attendance live in a hotel for eight weeks at a time with about half the day devoted to baseball training.
“It’s very high level,” he said. “There are guys in there that have been signed (professionally) and there are scouts in there every day looking at you … so it’s a pretty good level when you’re at the Australian academy.”
Both Whitehead and Barrie play for club teams and are members of the Queensland State Team. Very few Australian high schools have baseball programs, so the top players hook up with club teams and play in different leagues and at varying levels.
Barrie, who is visiting the United States for the first time, showed a strong arm during the workout sessions, throwing 83 mph from first to third, 85 mph across the infield and 87 mph from the outfield to home. He was expected to throw a few innings from the mound later in the showcase.
“This gives me a lot more confidence,” Barrie said of the showcase experience. “I was told coming over here that I was going to be a small kid and there are some big kids here, but I guess I’m fairly big, too. But it’s a big confidence boost coming over here and testing myself – this is your sport, this is where the sport came from so for me coming from Australia and playing your sport and grading myself compared to (the U.S.) kids, it’s a big thing.”
Barrie called the more than 550 players in attendance at the Underclass-Main Event “ridiculous” and the event is, in terms of participation, the largest on PG’s annual schedule. Seeing such an outpouring of support for baseball is nothing new to Whitehead, the Texan, but is definitely new to Barrie, the Australian.
Waylon Whitehead took in the morning’s activities with a discerning eye while also hoping the two teenagers he has in his in charge this weekend are able to take advantage of the opportunity presented to them.
“This can be very beneficial for them,” he said. “Just the exposure and getting an idea of what the competition in the U.S. is like is really good for them. The system in Australia is designed to funnel guys into the pros and they do a pretty good job of that.”
More than 30 elite players that were either native Australians or who grew up on the continent have played in the major leagues, including MLB All-Stars Grant Balfour and David Nilsson, and many more have signed free agent contracts. But there is very little middle ground.
“What they’re missing is college; there’s nothing to help them – that next tier of guys – with that,” Waylon Whitehead said. “Jack, now he projects – 6-4, 250, he’ll hit the ball a ton, he throws hard, he’s got good feet. My son (Austin), he won’t project as a pro player right now. So for that next layer of guys that want to go play in college or that just want to keep playing, there’s really not too much for them.”
For his part, Austin Whitehead did try to assimilate into the culture of his new home by taking up rugby, and he also continues to play basketball (baseball is his first love). As perhaps can be guessed due to his size, Barrie also got his feet wet in other sports.
“I used to play rugby but I kind of stopped – I didn’t like hurting people that much,” Barrie said. “I also played a little bit of soccer but I started playing baseball when I was 13 or 14 years old and I really enjoyed it, and then I started getting bigger, better, stronger.”
This traveling group of Australians – both permanent Barrie and the temporary Whiteheads – has been in the United States since December 17, and will return to Australia on New Year’s Day. Barrie, the Down Under native, is in no hurry to leave.
“This is my first time in the United States and I love it here. I don’t want to go home. It’s amazing here,” he said. “I wanted to see how I went up against other kids, see if I had colleges interested in me and see if I’m good enough to play baseball in America. I just wanted to make this trip, and it was worth it, too. It’s been great.”
There is plenty for both Barrie and Whitehead at the PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event this weekend. And most importantly, they both have plenty of time to continue to improve, whether it’s on the fields Down Under or on the fields of Southwest Florida.
“Everyone’s game is up and down, but at the moment I feel confident and content about where I am,” Barrie said. “I think I can keep getting bigger, better, stronger, especially with some of the stuff these guys are teaching us. I’m just hoping to come over here and get my experience and play in college and maybe even go and play pro.”