FORT MYERS, Fla. – Seemingly always cheerful and smiling, Chet Lemon – the ex-Major Leaguer who now heads one of the nation’s top travel team organizations – might as well whistle while he works. It’s almost scary how much he loves what he’s doing.
“How’s everybody doing today?” Lemon shouted out to roughly 16 teenage ballplayers upon arriving at the Chet Lemon’s Juice dugout at Brett Field at Terry Park Sunday morning. “Are we ready to go? You guys sure look ready to go.”
Lemon was addressing his Chet Lemon’s Juice 18U team about a half-hour before they were to take the field against the Florida Bruisers for the last of three pool-play games at the Perfect Game 18U WWBA Memorial Day Classic.
It was a game Juice 18U would win, 3-0, completing a remarkable run through pool play in which it outscored its opponents, 25-0, and earned the tournament’s No. 1 seed for the playoffs.
The Juice were scheduled to play Orlando Scorpions 17U Purple –a pre-tournament favorite which surprisingly slipped to the No. 16 seed after losing to the No. 10-seeded Pensacola Pirates during pool play – in a first round playoff game Sunday night.
But before that game against the Bruisers, Chet Lemon was more worried about his tight Sunday morning schedule than anything.
With both his Juice 18U and 16U teams scheduled to play games in the Perfect Game 18U and 16U WWBA Memorial Day Classics at 11 a.m. and at different venues, Lemon needed to have a plan.
He was at that 18U game at Terry Park. Juice 16U was slated to play Vikings Baseball at Riverdale High School. Lemon needed to be two places at once.
“I think (the 16U team) kind of misses me a little today,” Lemon said with a smile. “I didn’t get a chance to be with them yesterday, so I told them today I’m going to start here then I’m going to hustle over to Riverdale and be with my younger club for the remainder of the day.”
Like he did throughout most of his 16-year Major League career with the Chicago White Sox and Detroit Tigers, Lemon made it work. And his two teams made it work, as well, with the 16U group also finishing 3-0 in pool-play and grabbing the No. 3 seed in its tourney in support of the 18U team’s efforts.
The success the 18U team enjoyed during the pool-play portion of this weekend’s Classic should have come as no surprise.
The Juice 18U roster consists entirely of players who were also on the Juice team that tied with Dirtbags for the championship at the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., last October.
Prospects like right-hander Trey Oest (2012, Dover, Fla.), left-hander Corey Stump (2011, Lakeland, Fla.), catcher Josh Spano (2011, Mount Dora), infielders George Ragsdale (2012, North Port, Fla.) and Richie Martin (2012, Brandon, Fla.), outfielders Kuehl McEachern (2011, Mount Dora, Fla.) and Jordan Rivera (2011, Lakeland, Fla.) and 10 other roster members of this 18U squad played in last year’s World Championship.
Martin (Florida), Stump (Florida), McEachern (East Tennessee State), Rivera (South Florida CC) and Spano (High Point) have made college commitments.
“We had a young team last year, so we had a lot of those guys coming back,” Lemon said. “All of those kids that were a part of that team – almost our whole starting lineup – are here, so we feel real good about it. They’re experienced, they went through it and they were tested by fire last year.”
Chet Lemon’s Juice, with its base in Mount Dora, Fla., has been around for almost 20 years. Lemon started the baseball club a few years after retiring from Major League Baseball in 1990.
There is a lot of tradition associated with the program. Big-leaguers like Prince Fielder, Zach Grienke and Rickie Weeks all passing through the ranks, and those three are now teammates on the Milwaukee Brewers.
The endeavor has been a good way for Lemon to stay involved with youngsters and the game he loves.
“It’s given me the opportunity to work with some of the finest athletes in the country. It’s been a joy for me,” he said. “I love baseball (and) I love these kids. They listen and I’ve watched them grow and develop and come into their own. For me it’s just a joy.”
Lemon said he had opportunities to coach at the professional level, but it wasn’t what he wanted to do after his playing days.
“I was very, very fortunate to be very industrious-minded with my finances and that kind of gave me the opportunity to do what I wanted to do,” he said.
The Juice program is growing. The organization is in the process of building a 162,000 square-foot training facility in Lake County, Fla., which is scheduled for completion in September.
“It’s an exciting time for us because right now we have six teams and we’re going to have an opportunity to have about 20 teams,” Lemon said. “We’ve been limited in how many kids we could take and we’ve been reluctant to take a lot of kids because we don’t want the level of excellence to go down. We want to maintain the quality that we already have.”
Chet Lemon’s Juice appears to be doing a very nice job of maintaining that quality. Lemon calls the 16U group he has down here this weekend one of the most talented he’s had at that age level, with all of the players in the classes of ’13 and ’14.
“We’re pretty excited about the prospects for our ballclub in the future,” Lemon said. “Our 16-year-old team is going to be phenomenal. They are hard-workers and they’re very serious about the game.”
So don’t be surprised if you hear Chet Lemon – a career .273 hitter who was taken with 22nd overall selection by the Oakland A’s right out of high school in 1972 and made his Major League debut three years later – whistling while he works. He simply loves what he’s doing and enjoys bringing his kids to Perfect Game tournaments.
“I love the fact that they have given all our kids an avenue to be able to showcase their skills,” Lemon said. “(PG President) Jerry Ford and I have always had good conversations about different things … and everything I’ve done with (Perfect Game) has been a good experience.”