FORT MYERS, Fla. — The inaugural PG WWBA Freshman World Championship tournament kicked-off Friday afternoon on the sun-soaked fields at the jetBlue Player Development Complex and City of Palms Park Stadium. Twenty eight travel teams from as far north as New York, as far south as Puerto Rico and as far west as Texas have come to showcase their skills in front of college and Perfect Game scouts.
While this new event features a plethora of undiscovered individual talent, the ultimate goal this weekend — to hoist the first ever WWBA Freshman World Championship trophy — will take a team effort.
Tournament favorites include FTB, Marucci Elite and SWFL. But the New Jersey-based Tri-State Arsenal program — led by legendary Coach Joe Barth Jr. and his son, Bob — preaches more than just winning.
“Our whole foundation is built on the beliefs of my father (Joe Sr.),” Coach Joe Barth Jr. told Perfect Game Friday afternoon. “He taught us that everything depends on loyalty, integrity and commitment. In modern day baseball, there is no loyalty and very little integrity. Commitment alone doesn’t get it.”
The Barth family has spent the last 60 years coaching baseball in New Jersey. The coaching trio of Joe Sr., Joe Jr. and the latter’s brother, Dennis, have produced 52 state championships — 27 American Legion state championships and 25 high school state championships.
“State championships mean everything to us,” said Coach Barth. “It’s just how we were brought up.”
After coaching for more than 30 years, Coach Barth retired from Brooklawn American Legion Baseball in 2000. But the itch to coach again resurfaced shortly after.
“Retirement made me stir-crazy,” Coach Barth said. “I was driving my wife nuts.”
In 2004, a local 14U team approached The Hit Doctor — the name of the baseball and softball academy run by the Barths — looking for a new coach. Joe’s son, Bob, was happy to do it. But they wanted The Hit Doctor, Coach Joe Barth himself. So he came out of retirement and promptly beat Guerry Baldwin’s East Cobb team in the AAU World Series.
And thus, the Tri-State Arsenal program was born.
The program went from one team to 27 teams in a few years, exploding onto the travel ball scene. In 10 years since, Joe Barth has coached an estimated 23 current Major League players, including Mike Trout, Michael Cuddyer, Jack Cust and Sean Doolittle.
“I think the key to our success is that we’ve had a lot of good guys that have played for us,” Coach Barth said. “They’ve gone on to play college ball and pro ball, and they believe in (what we teach).”
Coach Barth doesn’t shy away from crediting his father as the reason for much of his success. Joe Sr. retired last season at the age of 91. But his son continues to teach players in the Tri-State program the values his father instilled in him.
“What I learned from my father was, when you make a decision, first you do what’s best for the organization 50 years from now,” Coach Barth said. “Second, you do what’s best for this year’s team. Third, do what’s best for the individual player. By doing it that way, I’ve never had a gray decision.”
Although his father’s influence has helped build the foundation for a program now run by him and his son, Coach Joe Barth praises Perfect Game as another reason for Tri-State’s success.
“For 50 years, our kids were good, but overlooked,” Coach Barth said. “We went to Perfect Game in 2004 and our whole world changed. Mike Trout wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar without Perfect Game. His junior year was his first exposure. And I heard a scout say, ‘(Trout) can’t be this good.’ But he came back the next year and realized, ‘He might be this good.’
“The Barths have been in baseball winning state and national championships for 50 years,” he continued. “But we didn’t start getting guys signed to play pro ball until 10 years ago when we started playing in Perfect Game tournaments. And Perfect Game has done it for everyone, it’s a level playing field. I understand there are so many great players from California, Texas and Florida. But that great player from Jersey comes here and he can prove himself. Perfect Game has leveled the playing field for everybody.”
A level playing field — and an important lesson — is what Coach Barth brought his 14U and 15U teams to Fort Myers for this weekend.
“I brought them down here to get humbled,” he said. “They’re here to find out that they have to get better. They’ve never seen these kinds of players. That’s what the Perfect Game tournaments do for us.”
Left-hander Tom Sheehan (2017, Manasquan, NJ) allowed just two hits while striking out 13 in Tri-State 14/15U’s seven-inning 1-1 tie Friday afternoon with Southeast Florida Baseball Underclass. The 6-foot-1, 160-pound Sheehan topped 81 mph on the radar gun, evoking praise from Coach Barth after the game.
“Tommy is a good one,” he said. “He’s a pro prospect, no doubt. And he’s a good kid. But here, he’s going to have to use his changeup. He’s going to be a 6-foot-5, hard-throwing lefty. And he’s going to have a real good curve, he just doesn’t throw it yet.
“We have some real good players here, but they’re 14. And they have to play the level of competition that’s here to realize that they’re not yet good enough yet.”
But that’s what Coach Barth excels at — helping kids get good enough. And he’ll work tirelessly to achieve that.
Nine months ago, Coach Barth — a diabetic — got a blister on his lower left leg. It became infected, and surgery was needed to remove the bad tissue. It’s been a long recovery process, and the cast he wears serves as a reminder to the sacrifices he’s made to continue coaching his program.
“I want to win with home-grown kids,” he said. “I’m a teacher, and I love seeing these kids get better.
“It sure beats the alternative.”