FORT MYERS, Fla. – It was only eight years ago that Ryan Christenson was occasionally patrolling centerfield in many of the nation’s Major League ballparks.
Tuesday afternoon, Christenson was stationed in the third base coach’s box at Clemente Field at the Terry Park complex and – except for the outcome of the game he was coaching – enjoying every minute of it.
Christenson is the coach of the Georgia Academy TPX Dodgers, a team that was at Terry Park Tuesday playing in its fifth of six pool-play games in the Perfect Game 15u BCS Finals.
The Dodgers won their first four games at the tournament – outscoring their opponents by a combined 27-5 – but got thumped by the South Florida Elite Squad, 14-2, in an early game Tuesday before yet another thunderstorm rolled into the area.
Christenson, 37, seemed to relate well with his young charges, asking them before the game if they had watched the MLB All-Star Game Home Run Derby the previous night, and encouraging them to have fun playing the game. He sure seemed to be enjoying himself – before the game started, anyway.
“I’ve really enjoyed getting back into baseball. You kind of get that itch and once it’s in you, you miss it,” Christenson said before the first pitch. “I’ve enjoyed working with the kids and we have a great group of kids here with some potential.
“I enjoy working with them on the instruction side, and coming down here and getting to play in these tournaments is always fun,” he continued. “It’s a good fit for me, for sure.”
Christenson played three full seasons (1998-2000) in the big leagues with the Oakland A’s, and parts of three others (2001-03) with the A’s, Arizona Diamondbacks, Milwaukee Brewers and Texas Rangers. His best season was his rookie year (’98) with the A’s when he hit .257 (95-for-370) with five home runs and 40 RBI in 117 games.
A 10th round pick of the A’s out of Pepperdine in the 1995 draft, Christenson’s professional career ended after the 2003 season when he suffered a knee injury early in the 2004 season when he was with the Florida Marlins’ Triple A squad.
“Getting out here and running around and shagging balls with these guys are about the extent of my baseball that I can enjoy anymore,” he said with a laugh.
Georgia Academy Baseball & Softball – based in Peachtree, Ga. – was established three years ago by Christenson and Academy director Pete Berrios, who moved down to Peachtree City from Ohio where he ran an organization called PB Baseball.
Berrios served as Christenson’s hitting coach in 1996 when Christenson was in A’s minor league system.
“I was out in California for a little bit living with my family just trying to find my way after playing professional baseball, and I had this opportunity to come down here and get back involved,” Christenson said. “That’s what brought me to the south-Atlanta area.”
Georgia Academy’s stated mission is “to instill character-building values in the youth of today through baseball and softball by creating an environment which motivates and encourages participation in sports, academics and life.”
Georgia Academy Baseball fields teams in every age group from 8u through 18u and offers year-round instruction. Already the organization has helped all of its older player secure baseball scholarships.
“It’s going the right direction, for sure,” Christenson said.
The Georgia Academy TPX Dodgers arrived here just a little over a week after advancing to the playoff-round at the PG WWBA 15u National Championship in Marietta, Ga. That performance was encouraging to Christenson, and convinced him his team could be competitive at the BCS Finals.
“We came down here and I know we have a pretty good club and I know we wanted to make the bracket-play,” he said.
There are only 13 players on the TPX Dodgers’ roster but eight of them are capable of pitching. Right-hander Casey Lenoch pitched a five-inning complete game one-hitter with eight strikeouts and one walk while allowing no earned runs in the Dodgers’ 11-3 tournament-opening win over Marucci Elite 15u Red.
“Casey Lenoch, the ace of our staff, has a great sinker and decent velocity, and I think he’s going to transfer over to the next level really well,” Christenson said.
Tyler Wilcher, Bryce Ingram and Cole Amtmann combined to pitch a five-hitter in a 2-1 win over the Dallas Mets in the Dodgers third game, and right-hander Michael Murphy pitched a five-inning three-hitter in a 9-1 win over the Dallas Tigers-Hernandez.
Christenson enjoys watching the young players learn the game, even if there are some challenges.
“The widest challenge, I think, is just getting that baseball IQ up,” he said. “This generation of players today has so many other outlets to occupy their time, and I don’t know if the players today watch enough baseball. When you don’t watch a lot of baseball you don’t get the little nuances and the intricacies of that baseball IQ, and they really don’t know what the game looks like in its ultimate form.”
The Georgia Academy TPX Dodgers are one of 20 teams at the 60-team 15u BCS Finals that are based in Georgia, and many of them are from the Atlanta area. East Cobb Baseball, based in the north suburb of Marietta, has seven teams at the tournament.
“It makes us feel good about where we’re coming from – there’s a lot of good baseball up there,” Christenson said. “East Cobb pretty much speaks for itself with what they’ve been able to accomplish over the last 20 years … so we’re in a good spot to play the game and learn the game.”
After spending two of the last three weeks at Perfect Game 15u tournaments in Georgia and Florida, Christenson is gaining a real respect for the talents of the young players.
“There’s some good baseball and I’ve been very impressed with some of the players I’ve seen this year in the 15-year-old age group,” he said. “The whole Southeast right now, especially that Atlanta area, is stuffed full of talent. It’s been fun, and I’ve really enjoyed myself. I really have.”