The prestigious FTB Baseball organization completed the 2011 spring, summer and fall seasons without winning championship gold at a single Perfect Game tournament. Founder and co-head coach George Gonzales couldn’t be any less concerned.
Tournament championships are the goal, of course, but in the view of both Gonzalez and his FTB partner and fellow head coach Jered Goodwin, team titles don’t necessarily represent the big picture. Their focal point is making sure the FTB prospects get at least some of their college education paid for.
“This is not one of these teams where we’re coming out trying to win trophies,” Gonzalez said in a recent telephone conversation with PG, referring primarily to his younger FTB squad. “If we don’t play late on Sunday it doesn’t mean we were unsuccessful. We throw our No. 1 and our No. 2 (pitchers) in those younger age brackets on Saturday. Why? Because that’s when the scouts are there and if I don’t show them my No. 1 and No. 2 on Saturday, I’ve cheated (both the player and the scouts).
“We kind of do things a little bit different in that sense because our main objective is to get them scholarships and not win another trophy."
Gonzalez founded FTB – officially “Florida Travel Ball” – 10 years ago and with Goodwin’s help it has grown into one of the most respected and successful organizations in the country. FTB fielded five teams in 2011, the first time in its history it had more than two teams in the same season.
FTB had 80 kids in its program this summer as opposed to the usual 40. When the annual number stayed around 40, Gonzalez said about 95 percent received college assistance, usually at D-I schools.
“What we do is try to pick up the top talent and take them to the proper showcases, and with timely hitting or timely defensive play show that this kid can play at the college level,” Gonzalez said. “We get some better opportunities because a lot of these colleges that know us know what we bring week in and week out. We’re not a travel team; we’re a college placement program.”
The FTB players are selected by Gonzalez and Goodwin after tryouts, workouts and a lot of background work. Gonzalez said the FTB players get extra attention from colleges because the coaches know they are going to see elite prospects who are going to have no problem being accepted academically at most of Division I colleges.
“In our opinion you have to be a college athlete and in our opinion you have to be a D-I level athlete,” Gonzalez said. “At the point we select you, we’ll get to meet your parents (and) we’ll ask for a high school transcript to make sure you’re a qualifier. When we go to these events … we’re already getting emails from all the college coaches that know us: ‘George, what do you got?’ And my response always is, ‘Well, what are you looking for.’”
Despite the lack of a championship trophy to show for their efforts, the teams representing FTB enjoyed a 2011 season full of successes.
The elite FTB Mizuno team, coached by Goodwin, finished as runner-up at the PG WWBA 2012 Grads or 17u National Championship in Marietta, Ga., July 9-15, and a week later advanced to the final eight at the PG 18u BCS Finals in Fort Myers Fla. The rosters of those two teams were nearly identical, and it was basically the same roster of players that finished second under the FTB Mizuno 17u banner at the PG WWBA Florida Qualifier Sept. 16-19 in Fort Myers.
A team called FTB Mizuno Royal, coached by Goodwin, advanced to the final four at the PG WWBA Underclass World Championship Oct. 7-10 in Fort Myers. FTB Pride, a team coached by Gonzalez, finished third at the WWBA Florida Qualifier and in the round of eight at the WWBA 18u Memorial Day Classic in Fort Myers at the end of May.
“All in all it was a great year for our program and we definitely put ourselves on the map – especially after (Perfect Game) was kind enough to rank us No. 1 (in the preseason 17u Travel Team National Rankings),” Gonzalez said.
Left-handers Sean Brady (2013, Cape Coral, Fla.) and Alex Hagner (2013, Mount Dora, Fla.) and catcher Chris Okey (2013, Mount Dora) were roster members on the WWBA 17u National Championship, 18u BCS Finals and WWBA Underclass World Championship entrants.
All of those tournaments were played in anticipation of the granddaddy of the all, the PG WWBA World Championship, staged Oct. 20-24 at the Roger Dean Complex in Jupiter, Fla.
Goodwin put together a powerhouse team that played under the name of Cardinals Scout Team/FTB Mizuno and included a Perfect Game All-American – and USA Baseball 18U National Team – outfield of Jesse Winker, Albert Almora and David Dahl. Perfect Game All-American shortstop Alex Bregman was also on the roster.
Winker, Almora and Dahl are the nation’s Nos. 17, 18 and 19-ranked prospects, respectively, in the 2012 class and Nos. 4, 5 and 6 at their positions. All three are projected as potential first or second round picks in June’s MLB amateur draft.
“They’re all phenomenal kids and they all have a different skill set and they’re all great people,” Goodwin said on opening day of the WWBA World Championship. “It’s really cool to be able to put that outfield out on the field.”
Following the FTB story line, Winker, Almora and Dahl were all expected to sign national letters of intent this week: Winker at Florida, Almora at Miami and Dahl at Auburn. The experience of playing for FTB was beneficial.
“Coach Goodwin has had us playing in front of these (scouts) since I was 14,” Winker said. “They’re going to come watch you, and our team’s really good, so they’re going to come watch the team. It’s just about playing well and winning.”
Gonzalez, meanwhile, took the FTB Pride roster, added five or six top prospects to the mix, and with a boost from Perfect Game entered a team that played under the name Central Florida PG Royal. On Oct. 20, opening day at the PG WWBA World Championship, CST/FTB Mizuno boasted 23 prospects who had committed to D-I schools, including four 2013s. Central Florida PG Royal had eight D-I commitments, two from the class of 2013.
Both teams advanced to the 36-team playoffs and, as fate would have it, they met in the quarterfinal round. Central Florida PG Royal, a decided underdog, won that game, 5-3, and eventually advanced to the championship game where it fell to powerhouse Marucci Elite, 3-2.
“We put together that (Cardinal Scout Team) and we had that USA roster, but unfortunately the baseball gods made us run into each other,” Gonzalez said. “The thing people didn’t realize is I had a couple of guys on that Central Florida team that I believe are draft picks but they weren’t selected to be on the (FTB Mizuno) team.”
That may have served as motivation. Some of the older players on the Central Florida PG Royal roster – Puerto Rican 2012s OF Robert Anthony Ruiz, SS Christian Eliud Rivera Osorio and RHP Joe Alexander Jimenes Gracias among them – felt like they had something to prove. The 2013s and 2014s on the roster simply wanted to make sure they got noticed.
Among the latter group was left-hander Ian McKinney, a Central Florida commit who is a junior at Boone High School in Orlando. McKinney worked 4 2/3 innings in the WWBA World Championship quarterfinal win over Cardinal Scout Team/FTB Mizuno and allowed only one hit while striking out 10.
“He said to me, ‘Coach, do you think I’m good enough to wear the Cardinal uniform next year?’” Gonzalez related. “That was his motivation: ‘Let me show Coach Goodwin that I’m the dude so I can be on that team next year.’ My young kids, it was their tryout for next year and my older guys wanted to show they have should have been picked for the Cardinals Scout Team.”
There was a reason Gonzales called his team FTB Pride.
“Every time we come out and play we say, ‘Hey, we’re playing for pride here," Gonzales said. "When Mizuno walks into a park, it’s a bulls-eye – all the attention is on them. So on the Pride, we play for pride. We play to prove to people that we’re good.”
Gonzalez said he strives for FTB Mizuno and FTB Pride to grow into a 1-2 punch similar to the East Cobb Astros and East Cobb Braves. “Anytime you play either one of those teams you better bring a Red Bull and take an Advil because you can get a whooping if you’re not paying attention,” he said.
It would appear, based entirely on results, FTB can stand toe-to-toe with the nation’s best. The Pride’s performance at the WWBA World Championship helped solidify that notion.
“Our goal is to put together two teams that are extremely solid and competitive nationwide and to earn the right to be able to go to Jupiter under the FTB Pride name, and we’re going to bring the thunder and represent well,” Gonzalez said.
And if that’s good enough for a championship, consider it frosting on the cake.