It was late in the day on June 11 at the East Cobb Baseball Complex in Marietta, Ga., and an afternoon rain shower had delayed the start of the playoff round at the 17u/18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational.
The nationally ranked East Cobb Braves 17u team wouldn’t be playing its first round playoff game until very late that night, and if the Braves were going to win the tournament championship, they would have to win four games in less than 24 hours, including three back-to-back-to-back on June 12.
The tournament was a Perfect Game event, but it also carried the East Cobb name. Thirty-three East Cobb Baseball squads were entered in the three age-group tournaments (17u/18u, 16u and 14u/15u), accounting for 27 percent of the 124 teams entered.
Each of those ECB teams expected to win a championship. That’s the mindset within the organization.
“We try to go out and win every tournament we’re in,” Braves 17u head coach Kevin Baldwin said before his team finally was able to take the field for its playoff opener. “I’m just proud of the guys showing up and representing (East Cobb), but we go out and try to win every one we can. Every time we win one it’s a good thing.”
Good things happened to the EC Braves 17u that steamy weekend at their home complex and continued to happen as the season progressed. The Braves won those four games in 24 hours and grabbed the 17u/18u PG-EC Invitational title, and then captured the coveted national championship twofer by winning the PG WWBA 2012 Grads or 17u National Championship and sharing the championship at the 18u BCS Finals, with both titles coming in July.
The Braves 17u wasn’t the only ECB team to win championships this summer.
The East Cobb Astros 15u, with head coach Dennis Jordan, won the 16u PG-EC Invitational, the WWBA 2014 Grads or 15u National Championship and the 15u BCS Finals all within a month of one another.
Other championships came from the EC Longhorns in the 14u/15u PG-EC Invitational; the EC Astros 14u in the WWBA 2015 Grads or 14u National Championship, and the EC Titans 14u in the 14u BCS Finals.
At summer’s end, 10 ECB teams are ranked in the top 14 of the five Perfect Game Travel Team National Rankings. They include the No. 1-ranked EC Astros 14u (14u rankings), EC Astros 15u (15u rankings) and the EC Braves 17u (18u rankings).
EC Braves 17u set the pace
Since East Cobb Baseball founder/owner/coach Guerry Baldwin first welcomed the East Cobb Braves 17u squad under its massive umbrella in 2000, Coach Kevin Baldwin – Guerry’s son – and the hundreds of players who have worn the Braves uniform have enjoyed tremendous success.
Braves 17u teams have won 13 national titles, including five Perfect Game WWBA National Championships and four BCS Finals, all since 2003.
Thirteen former Braves have been selected in the first round of the MLB draft since 2006, including Javier Baez, Dwight Smith Jr. and Grayson Garvin in the 2011 draft.
Twenty-eight Perfect Game All-Americans (formerly Aflac All-Americans) have worn the Braves uniform, including 10 in the last three years and three – Skye Bolt, Matthew Crownover and Tucker Simpson – this summer. Duane Underwood, who played this summer for the EC Astros 16u, was also a PG All-American.
Bolt (North Carolina), Crownover (Clemson) and Simpson (Florida) are among 12 players on the Braves 17u roster that have committed to Division I schools. And that, Kevin Baldwin maintains, is the foundation of East Cobb Baseball.
“It’s all about the kids moving on,” he said. “Of course we like to win tournaments and we strive to win every year, but when it comes down to it, it’s about getting the kids exposure, it’s about getting them to that next level, whether it be college or getting them exposed to some (professional) scouts. If we win tournaments, that’s just gravy.”
Bolt, a senior at Holy Innocents High School in Woodstock, Ga., said the fact that so many current and former Braves players advance to the highest levels of the game speaks for itself.
“It’s just evidence of how many guys we are surrounded by (at ECB) that know exactly what they’re doing, and who are willing to put the time and effort into us,” he said. “Me and my family cannot agree enough with the statement that this is the best place to be.”
Crownover, a senior at Ringgold (Ga.) High School, expressed similar feelings about the ECB organization when asked what it meant to be selected to play in the PG All-American Classic, held in August in San Diego.
“Since I started playing at East Cobb it was my goal to make that game,” he said. “A lot of hard work and a lot of dedication went into it, and I was lucky to be in a great organization like East Cobb.”
Although he was not a PG All-American, Kenosha, Wis., outfielder Nathan Mikolas – the top-ranked prospect in his state and who has committed to Louisville – had so much respect for the Braves 17u’s history and tradition that he jumped at the opportunity to join them this summer.
“I was excited I got asked to play with the Braves, and it’s a good experience and a lot of exposure and it’s a chance to get better,” Mikolas said. “It’s a great experience meeting new people and a chance to get a lot, lot better (and) the coaches here have helped me a tremendous amount.”
Astros 15u, 14u also excel in ‘11
This summer, the East Cobb Astros 15u became the first team to win the PG WWBA 15u National Championship and the 15u BCS Finals in the same summer in the six years the two tournaments have co-existed. When the Astros beat the Orlando Scorpions 2014 in the BCS championship game, their record improved to 55-0.
The EC Astros 15u had to rally from a 4-0, seventh-inning deficit to beat Team Elite 15u Black, 5-4, in the quarterfinal round of the BCS Finals. The comeback had Coach Dennis Jordan shaking his head.
“This is a special group. You can’t ever count them out. They battle the whole time,” Jordan said after the rally. “That’s why we’re where we’re at. They have no quit in them. That was a tough situation to be in … but they will not accept defeat.”
That could be the mantra for the entire ECB organization.
“The kids we have, the expectations they have for themselves are already at a very high level,” Jordan said. “They understand they are still at the learning stage, and we’re very teaching oriented. We teach the game every day to try to get them to understand what to do and how to play the game. They are very hard workers … and they want to play the game a long time.”
The development starts at the lower age groups – ECB fielded 39 teams in the 8 to 13 age groups this summer – and Dave Roberts works with the No. 1-ranked East Cobb Astros 14u squad. By the time the young players reach Roberts, some have already had as many as six years of instruction.
“Fortunately, some of the coaches at our younger age-groups do a very good job of teaching the fundamentals, but at each stage you progress to, the game’s going to get quicker, the game’s going to get faster (and) the players are going to get stronger,” Roberts said in June.
Many of the East Cobb players make that progression seamlessly. And it’s their ability to adjust to the situations they’re presented with that can lead to teams like the EC Braves 17u winning four games in 24 hours and taking home more championship hardware.
And then watch its players move on to the next level.
“Yes, we focus on a lot of the development of the aspects of the game that they may not have encountered, but we also focus on the other stuff … such as making the players realize that you never know who’s going to be watching you,” Roberts said. “That’s something we preach all the time.”
Astros 16u, Yankees 18u always in the hunt
If there were any surprises within the ECB organization this summer, it may have been that the traditionally powerful EC Astros 16u, coached by Guerry Baldwin, and the EC Yankees 18u, organized and coached by James Beavers, didn’t win a Perfect Game national championship.
Those squads didn’t struggle by any means. The East Cobb Yankees are No. 4 in the Perfect Game 18u Travel Team National Rankings and the EC Astros 16s are No. 6 in the 17u National Rankings.
The Yankees finished second at the PG WWBA 2011 Grads or 18u National Championship, falling to San Diego Show in the title game. They also fell short of reaching one of their most desired destinations.
“I thought we had a great year (and) I thought we had some good kids, but it didn’t end as well as wanted,” Beavers said. “We really kind of judge of our year on being back in the Connie Mack World Series and we got upset in the regionals, so we didn’t get there for the first time in many, many years.”
But by the end of the year, there were still rewards. Yankees left-hander Daniel Norris, right-hander Jake Burnette and infielder Tyler Gibson all signed professional contracts after being selected in June’s MLB draft.
“We’ve been lucky. We’ve really had a lot of guys (drafted) and a lot of guys have been in the big leagues,” Beavers said before reminiscing about one of his most potent teams.
The 2008 Yankees’ roster included left-handed pitchers Jed Bradley and Norris – only 15 at the time – and right-handers Kyle Heckathorn and Buck Farmer.
Heckathorn was a first round pick of the Milwaukee Brewers out of Kennesaw State in 2009 and signed for nearly $800,000; the Brewers selected Bradley out of Georgia Tech in the first round (15h overall) in June’s draft, and he signed for a reported $2 million; Norris was taken in the second round of this year’s draft by the Toronto Blue Jays right out of Science Hill Academy (Johnson City, Tenn.) and signed for $2 million; and Farmer, a junior at Georgia Tech, is projected as an early round pick in the 2012 draft.
“That team right there might have had 6 or 7 million dollars worth of arms on it,” Beavers said with an easy laugh.
Jason Heyward, Brian McCann, Gordon Beckham, Jeff Franceour, Micah Owings, Dexter Fowler, Chris Nelson, Mitchell Boggs, Matt Capps, Marlon Byrd, Brandon Boggs, Tyler Greene and Russ Mitchell are among former ECB players who have been in the major leagues at some point this season.
“There’s a bunch of ‘em,” Beavers said.
Guerry Baldwin started East Cobb Baseball in 1985 with just one team, and in the 26 years since, ECB teams have won 167 national titles. This summer, the organization fielded 79 teams in age groups ranging from 8u through 18u, and has won 11 national championships.
“I think that it's probably a little bit of a surprise that it has grown to the level that it is, but it is, I think, what we set out to do," Guerry Baldwin said last year. "What we do now that makes it a little bit different, is we try to provide baseball for all the kids we can possibly handle at this complex. It doesn't really reflect on if it's a really, really talented player or someone trying to have fun playing baseball.”