MARIETTA, Ga. – Wayne Rohlfing speaks freely of all things baseball, especially when the talk centers on his beloved St. Louis Pirates College and Pro Development Club for which he is one of the coaches.
The first topic on a hot and steamy June afternoon in suburban Atlanta was the play of his St. Louis Pirates 17u team that is participating in this week’s 17u/18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational at the East Cobb Baseball Complex and other venues around Marietta.
The Pirates opened the tournament with a close 3-2 win over Team Gwinnette on Thursday, and Rohlfing spoke to Perfect Game before his team took the field for their second game of the tournament against the East Cobb Orioles 18u, played at Kell High School late Friday afternoon.
“You can’t win ‘em all unless that win that first one,” Rohlfing said with a laugh.
You also can’t win ‘em all if you don’t win the second one, which the Pirates failed to do. They lost to the EC Orioles 18u, 6-5, resulting in a split of their first two pool-play games. The loss won’t change Rohlfing’s approach, however.
“The big thing I stress with all my kids is attitude,” he said. “We’ve got a club here that looks like they want to work hard; we’ve got some ability. I think it’s going to be a lot of fun for me this summer – I get a different team every summer – and with this group of individuals I really feel strongly that they’re going to have a good summer. They’re going to push each other and do the little things that we demand.”
The Pirates are a 17u team and every roster spot is filled by a prospect who will graduate from high school in 2012. The players also are almost exclusively from the St. Louis metropolitan area, which includes cities across the Mississippi River in Illinois, and none list a college commitment – yet.
The St. Louis Pirates Club has a 20,000-foot indoor training facility that is utilized during the nine months the players aren’t involved with their high school teams.
“We start Nov. 1, give them a couple of weeks off at Christmas, and then we got them until March 1,” Rohlfing said. “That’s when the Missouri and Illinois high schools start their programs, and players are untouchable while they’re with their (high school) teams.”
Rick Strickland started the organization 12 years ago, and Pirates teams have been regulars at Perfect Game events most of the past decade. The Pirates organization tries to take a team to the WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., every year and competes regularly in the PG BCS Finals.
“We’ve gotten to where we can come down and we feel like we can compete,” Rohlfing said. “We’re not going to beat East Cobb or the Florida Bombers on a year-after-year basis, but we feel that by what we’re doing here we’re giving the opportunity for kids to compete at that level.”
And they intend to compete and compete hard. St. Louis is a baseball-crazy Midwestern city whose psyche often ebbs and flows with the fate of the MLB Cardinals. That doesn’t mean there aren’t challenges when dealing with high school prospects – and their parents – however.
“We’re taking kids out of the Midwest who, at their respective high schools, they’re the cream of the crop,” Rohlfing said. “In order to develop to your maximum potential, you’ve got to be challenged. By coming down here and competing against good competition makes them better ballplayers.”
Rohlfing said he’s gotten to be good friends with some of the high school coaches in the St. Louis metropolitan area, and they’ve told him they’ve noticed a difference in the skill level of their players after spending an offseason with the Pirates. The love isn’t universal, however.
“There are high schools up there that do their own summer programs and some of them don’t like what we do,” Rohlfing said. “But most of them prefer that their high-end players go out and compete. I’ve said since my own son was in little league ball … and people would ask me, ‘Where should my son play?’ My response to that is you play where you’re in the middle of the pack.”
Rohlfing offered this explanation for his reasoning:
“It doesn’t do you any good being the best player on the team and it doesn’t do you any good being the worst player on the team. You’d like to be in the middle of that pack where you’re competing against each other and you’re challenging yourself as well as challenging other people.”
Not unlike any of the other travel ball organizations in attendance here this weekend – including host East Cobb Baseball and its 33 teams spread over the three tournaments – the Pirates want their players to be seen by college coaches.
One college recruiter representing a prominent SEC school – he didn’t want to be identified – told Perfect Game Friday the event was a perfect place to kick off the summer recruiting process, with so many uncommitted 2012 prospects.
It also provides the perfect lead-in into next week’s Perfect Game National Showcase and PG Junior National Showcase, both of which will be in Fort Myers next week.
Rohlfing said it’s the goal of the Pirates organization to find the right fit for every prospect that enters its program, be it Division I, Division III, junior college or something in between.
“Naturally, every parent that brings their kid into our program, they think D-I,” he said. “We’ve been around here long enough to know they’re not all D-I’s.”
Rohlfing approaches that way of thinking directly:
“What I tell people throughout our organization is don’t think D-1. Think one step better. I tell people, ‘I’m relatively sure we’re going to get you one step higher than if you don’t participate with us. If you’re a D-II player, we feel we can get you pretty close to a D-I. We don’t talk a lot about D-I because then all the parents expect it. We’re preaching now that it’s all about the development.”
The St. Louis Pirates have 11 teams in the organization (11u through 18u), including one 18u team of graduated seniors. Most of them are on their way to college careers in the fall.
“Our theory on that is, the most important year in college is your fall workouts (freshman year),” Rohlfing said. “As you compete at a higher level through the summer you’re going to be better prepared to make some headway in your college program in the fall.”
And you can’t win ‘em all if you don’t win the first one.