FORT MYERS, Fla. – It was 7 o’clock Friday morning not far from this city’s historic downtown district, and the batting cages at the Boston Red Sox’s former Player Development 5-Plex were already humming with activity. Balls met composite metal bats with a sharp “THWACK!” that resonated across the awakening 5-Plex a full hour before the first games would be played.
This is not necessarily an unusual occurrence during the summer months at the many current and former Grapefruit League spring training complexes that dot Lee County, but it was remarkable in at least one aspect. The players filling the batting cages and taking their cuts at the 5-Plex Friday morning were 12 and 13 year olds.
“It can be pretty challenging,” said 31-year-old Josh Ford, the head coach for the Texas-based Banditos of Austin, when asked the secret to getting sixth-graders up and running so early in the morning. “One thing that I’ve learned is you have to make them sweat a little bit right from the beginning.
“You’ve got to get them out here a little bit earlier than some of the other teams get out here. It can be challenging, though, especially a little bit later in the week.” The 12 young Banditos on hand taking their cuts arrived at the cages at 6:45 a.m.
The occasion was the opening of the 3rd annual 13u PG BCS Finals, the first of six PG BCS Finals Perfect Game national championship tournaments – 14u, 15u, 16u, 17u and 18u are the others – that will be contested in Lee County over the next four weeks (the 12u PG BCS Finals is currently being played in Marietta, Ga.). Games at the 13u PG BCS Finals are being played at the 5-Plex, Terry Park and City of Palms Park.
On Friday, the 40 teams in this year’s 13u PG BCS Finals field were all scheduled to play the first two of what will ultimately be six pool-play games over the next several days. After the first set of three pool-play games Friday and Saturday, the pools will be re-shuffled and three more pool games will be played with the second set of pool champions advancing into next week’s playoffs.
Ford spoke with PG before the Banditos of Austin played their 8 a.m. tournament-opener against the Diamond Jacks Super 13 out of Flemington, N.J. Ten states and Puerto Rico are represented at the tournament, including three from the Northeast: the Diamond Jacks Super 13 (New Jersey), the D1 Renegades (New Jersey) and the Connecticut Wolfpack 13u (Connecticut). The Diamond Jacks weren’t all that put-off by an 8 a.m. start, either.
“We’ve got a nice big complex up there ourselves, very similar to this, but it’s all FieldTurf because we’re in the Northeast,” Diamond Jacks Super 13 head coach Chas Crane said Friday. “We have the ability to play tournaments pretty much every weekend up there, so this is nothing for us to play at 8 a.m. These kids play so much amateur baseball and so many tournaments that they’re use to it at this point.”
At Perfect Game national championship tournaments like the PG BCS Finals, the majority of the players are already experienced veterans, even as 13-year-olds. They’re use to playing early, playing late and even waiting out lightning and rain delays, like the one that hit the 5-Plex over the noon-hour on Friday.
The players from the Banditos of Austin and the Diamond Jacks Super 13 certainly fit that bill.
Ford described the Banditos of Austin organization as a different “sector” from the larger overall Banditos organization with owner Ray DeLeon, which operates out of Houston.
The Banditos-TX out of Houston and the Banditos Black from Richmond, Texas, join the Banditos of Austin as three of the 10 teams here – a fourth of the entire field – that are based in Texas. The Houston Banditos were co-champion with the Chain Stealth out of Georgia at the 2013 13u PG BCS Finals.
“This is kind of something that we’ve been building up to all year,” Ford said, noting that this group has already played tournaments this spring in Houston, Dallas and Oklahoma. “We’ve been traveling quite a bit and hopefully it kind of prepared us for what’s going to happen here.”
He quickly added: “From what it looks like … there’s a lot of talent here, and that’s what you always want to do is play against the best kids. Hopefully this will help prepare them for high school and whatever comes after.”
Diamond Jacks Baseball was established in 2000 and is affiliated with the Jack Cusp Baseball Academy. The organization started out with just one elite 18u team, but now has eight teams from 10u through 17u. Los Angeles Angels superstar outfielder Mike Trout played with Cust-Diamond Jacks affiliated teams at PG WWBA events in 2007 and 2008.
Crane, 24, played four seasons of college baseball at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, S.C., from 2009-12 and is himself a Perfect Game alumnus, playing in a total of six showcase and tournament events in 2006-07.
“We have teams at every age group, so with this team there is a group of about four or five (players) that have played together for the past two or three years,” Crane said. “We keep having some turnover from year-to-year – we get some new guys, we lose some guys, we have guys slide down to our second team – but there’s a group of them have played together for years. This (roster), in particular, has been together since the winter.”
In their game Friday morning, the Banditos of Austin jumped to a 5-0 lead after posting four runs in the bottom of the third, but the Diamond Jacks came back with a four-spot of their own in the top of the fourth to move back within one.
The Banditos added one more run in the bottom of the fifth before the game was called complete due to the two-hour time limit with the Banditos winning 6-4. The Banditos totaled only three hits and Diamond Jacks two; the two pitching staffs combined for 12 walks and six hit batsmen.
Rhett Trlicek, a 5-foot-3, 115-pound class of 2019 catcher from Halletsville, Texas, doubled and drove in a run to provide the Banditos’ offensive highlight. Jacob Ledesma, a 5-foot-4, 115-pound right-hander from Austin, threw 1 1/3 innings of perfect relief with two strikeouts to pick up the save.
Diamond Jacks’ righty Felix Diaz (2019, North Brunswick, N.J.) threw three innings of one-hit ball in relief without allowing an earned run, and struck out four and walked three.
The Banditos’ Ford, a catcher, played college baseball at Baylor and was drafted in the ninth round of the 2005 draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks. He played five seasons in the D-backs farm system between 2005 and 2011 before getting into coaching.
He coached a 15u team in the Banditos of Austin program last summer and was able to do much more managing than is allowed at this level. He’s made the necessary adjustments.
“This is still teaching and coaching, which is one reason I like this age group,” he said. “They’re old enough to know what to do but we still have to coach them; it’s been fun with this age. … Just like any other kids, they kind of get distracted sometimes but for the most part they’ve done a really good job this year of staying on task and doing what they’re supposed to do.
“The hardest part is getting them to trust each other,” he continued. “When you bring other kids on and they haven’t played together, as long as they start to trust each other they usually start to play a lot better. They’re kids, and as long as they have a good time and can know where the other person is going to be, that’s big.”
A loss in the first set of three pool-play games is not in the least bit crippling. Only the results of the final three games are considered when determining the 10 automatic playoff qualifiers and the results of all six pool games come into play only when awarding the six wild card beths. In other words, the Diamond Jacks Super 13 still have a lot to play for over the next several days
“We sign our kids up for these tournaments for the same reasons that we sign our 17s up for their national (tournaments),” Crane said. “They are given the (opportunity) to come down here and showcase their talents, and that’s really what we’re looking to down here. We have some talented baseball players and we let them down here and show off what they can do. They’re excited; they’re excited to be down here in Florida.”