FORT MYERS, Fla. – Jeff Cohen sat comfortably in the covered grandstand inside the main stadium at Terry Park Monday afternoon and gazed out over the playing field where his reasons for being here for six days were in the process of beginning pre-game warm-ups.
All nine of them.
Cohen is the general manager of the New York Grays Baseball Club, an organization based in the Bronx, N.Y. He has his New York Grays 14u team here this week to participate in the 2011 Perfect Game 14u BCS Finals that is scheduled to conclude its six-day run Thursday afternoon.
This is the first time Cohen has brought a 14u team to the BCS Finals, and to say the club is short-handed is a bit of an understatement. It started out with just an 11-player roster of 14-year-olds, but then lost one player to injury and another to an academic issue.
That left the depleted Grays 14u with just nine players to compete in a minimum of six games over four days.
“They’re gritty, they’re tough and, you know what? They’re going to grind it out every moment, win or lose, Cohen said. “We’re having a great time here.”
It all seems to be part of the plan.
The New York Grays organization was formed by Cohen in 2006 and presently fields four age-group teams – 13u, 14u, 15u and 17u. It is a relative newcomer to the competitive travel team scene, but the organization has wasted little time in getting acclimated.
It’s become a regular at Perfect Game tournaments such as the BCS Finals and the WWBA National Championships. Cohen will be here for the first three weeks of July with teams competing in the 14u, 15u and 17u BCS Finals.
“Perfect Game – there is no better organization in youth sports,” Cohen said, unprompted. “The fields, the umpires, just the way (PG) runs things, everything is just perfect. We love coming down here.”
The Grays put an almost unequaled emphasis on academics, education and discipline. Those values aren’t unique to the organization, of course, but its insistence on their importance just might be.
“New York has a lot of good ballplayers but there is a lack of discipline in the organizations, both in terms of kids quitting and moving around, and no discipline as far as academics,” Cohen said. “We are very big on the academic side.”
Cohen said “virtually” every Ivy League school has shown interest in Grays' players over the past five years and that interest continues today. The program’s goal, he said, is to instill young players with a love of learning at an early age.
“We try to get our kids into the private schools when they’re young so that they start getting the fabric of education when they’re young,” he said. “We’re not 100 percent successful, but we think it builds discipline on the field as well as off the field.”
Cohen also expects his teams to be competitive on the field, and even the depleted Grays 14u team played well here the first three days of the tournament. It went 2-0-1 in first round pool-play games – the only team in the 32-team field to not suffer a loss – but lost twice Monday as the second three-game set of pool games got under way.
Their wins came by scores of 8-0 and 7-6, and their losses by close tallies of 6-4 and 8-6; there was also a 5-5 tie. Right-hander Wesley Rodriguez, a 14-year-old in the class of 2015, threw a five inning shutout in the tournament opener.
Cohen noted there are a lot of challenges in working with 14-year-old ballplayers, but said coaches like David Owens, Rich Corbo and Jose Franco do a remarkable job with the youngsters and the challenges they face.
“There is a lot going on with them,” Cohen said knowingly. “Some are just getting used to their bodies, some are growing very tall very quickly – it’s a transitional phase and although it’s their second year on the big field, they don’t quite have the strength or the speed, but by the time they’re 15 they start getting it.
“There’s also some immaturity,” he continued. “They get down on themselves sometimes.”
The players’ academic advancement remains a priority. Cohen and his coaches meet with the students and their guidance counselors during the school year, and try to be of assistance if there is a problem.
They start getting involved with the players on the baseball level right after Thanksgiving by getting them into a gym with a professional training group that the organization hires. They also start hitting in indoor batting cages over the winter.
Cohen said he is contemplating sending a couple of his older teams down to Florida to get some games in as late as October and as early as March. He realizes baseball teams have to go where the sun shines (never mind that its rained here every afternoon in the last three days).
“You’ve got to come here to play the best,” he said. “That’s why we love (Perfect Game) tournaments because everybody here is good, and that’s fun. That’s why you want to play.”
The Grays also want to get their older players in front of college coaches. The college recruitment for the Grays 17u players – they will be seniors in high school in the fall – begins in earnest this summer.
“We’ve got the ACC, the SEC, the Ivy League – they’re all into our kids,” Cohen said. “Our view is, ‘Don’t pick the team that looks good on TV. Pick the team that looks good for you.’”
In its mission statement on the website newyorkgraysbaseball.com, the organization also vows a commitment to promoting diversity:
“Our players and their families are representative of the various ethnic and socioeconomic groups that comprise the metropolitan New York City area,” it reads. “Our message is clear – athletic and academic achievements are not limited by geographic boundaries, ethnic distinctions, language barriers or financial status.”
The New York Grays organization won’t waiver from its stated mission to promote education and diversity. And baseball is providing an excellent stage from which to work.
“I want to see competitive kids who use baseball to get a great education and not let baseball use them,” Cohen said. “That’s what we’re all about and we’ve come a long ways in five years.”