GLENDALE, Ariz. – A persistent question that arises anytime the conversation turns to youth baseball – pre-high school in the context of this story – is often, “How much is too much?” In the young players’ minds, of course, there is no such thing as “too much” so it is left to diligent parents and coaches to ultimately answer that general question.
A more specific question in regard to what is taking place here this weekend might be something along the lines of, “Is is it overdoing things a little bit to send a group of seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders across the country to play in a four-day 14-and-under tournament in the middle of January?”
Not in the collective mind of the Altamonte Springs, Fla.-based Central Florida Gators, who traveled almost 2,000 miles to compete at the 3rd annual 14u Perfect Game MLK Championships, an event that started Friday and concludes Monday – Martin Luther King Day – with playoffs and a championship game. There aren’t any Perfect Game-caliber tournaments being played in Florida this month, so this group of young Gators came to where the action is.
“You get kind of stuck in playing the teams from Florida and seeing the same teams week after week,” Gators head coach Joe Mercadante told PG Saturday morning before his team took the field for its second pool-play game of the tournament. “We played at an event last year in So Cal, so we got to see some really good teams from Southern California, and it’s just good to kind of see where you stack up compared to everybody else in the country.”
Central Florida Gators founder and owner Mark Roberts started the organization a couple of years ago with a 12u squad, and that team has pretty much stayed together – or at least the nucleus has remained constant.
The official roster posted here this weekend shows 10 Florida kids, but also includes young players from Pennsylvania, Georgia, North Carolina and South Carolina. It lists four high school freshmen (class of 2017), seven eighth-graders (2018) and three seventh-graders (2019), including the founder’s son, right-handed pitcher/outfielder Andrew Roberts.
The Gators have played in PG events in the past – the 2013 14u PG BCS Finals, 2013 13u PG BCS Finals and the 2013 PG Super25 North Florida Qualifier among them – frequently as 12- and 13-year-olds playing at the 14u level. There is another Central Florida Gators 14u team out there, but it is in essence a separate operation that shares the same name.
This Central Florida Gators 14u team was simply eager to experience baseball life on the other side of the country, and in doing so became the second Florida team in as many years to play in the 14u Perfect Game MLK Championship (the MBA Prospects from Daytona Beach were here last year).
“When Mark put the team together, he put together a good group of some really talented kids … and his goal has just been to play the top competition that we can find,” Mercadante said. “That meant playing in the different divisions or the different leagues – whether it’s USSSA or Triple Crown –and obviously now we can get into some more Perfect Game events. That’s been the biggest goal for us as a team is just to play the top competition, and this time of year this is the best event you can find.”
After two days of play, the Gators had no reason to regret making the trip. They beat the Los Angeles-based So Cal Cavs, 3-1, on Friday and then used a six-run fourth inning to down the Bremerton, Wash.-based West Hills Vipers, 8-0, on Saturday.
Right-handed pitcher and first baseman Tommy Ben was very good in the Gators’ first two games. A 6-foot-5, 210-pound high school freshman from Jacksonville, Fla., Ben was 4-for-5 (.800) with a triple, two RBI and two runs scored after two games; he also allowed no runs on no hits with six strikeouts and four walks in 2 2/3 innings of work off the mound in the opener.
Right-hander Connor Ollio (2018, Renfrew, Pa.) threw four innings, allowing no earned runs on one hit with six strikeouts and two walks, and righty Eric Foggo (2017, Hilton Head, S.C.) didn’t allow an earned run on three hits while striking out six and walking one in 3 1/3 innings. The Gators’ staff did not allow an earned run in 12 innings.
“For our team, we definitely come in expecting to win; we’re always expected to finish at the top of the event,” Mercadante said. “The expectations are there, but it’s always a teaching experience and it’s always a time for guys to learn. I try to make sure to take notes during each game, win or lose, so we can sit and talk about things we can improve on.”
The logistics, the challenges and, yes, the potential headaches associated with the idea of traveling across the country with more than a dozen 12-, 13- and 14-year-olds might terrify lesser men, but Mercadante seems no worse for the wear. In fact, he prefers to look at the many positives of the situation, like the way friendships are renewed.
“A lot of them aren’t necessarily at the same schools, so they don’t get to see each other except when we get together for (these events),” he said. “These trips, you’ll see them all running around the (hotel) lobby together, hanging out in their rooms together – it’s a good chance for them to kind of get to catch up. Of course, in this day and age with the technology, if they’re not together they’re talking to each other every day, anyway, but we have a good group and the team bonding is definitely there.”
Mercadante has a baseball background that couldn’t be any different from the role he is filling now coaching a 14-and-under team. He played collegiately for two years at the junior college level and then another two years at the University of Florida before moving into coaching. He spent seven years at the University of Miami and then one year at Central Florida before deciding to take some time off.
“I have a newborn son, so it’s been good to kind of ease off the gas a little bit and get out of the rat-race of recruiting for a couple of years,” he said. “Mark is a friend of mine and he asked me to come in and coach these guys at a little bit of a higher level and give them a little bit of a taste of what they’re going to experience with the competitive travel ball teams when they get to high school.
“A lot of these guys have aspirations of playing college baseball and pro baseball, so it’s good to kind of give them a taste of what will be expected and what will be demanded of them when they get to that age.”
The adjustment Mercadante had to make from coaching college players at two highly regarded NCAA Division I schools to coaching seventh, eighth and ninth-graders were not as drastic as one might imagine.
“You go from young men of 18 to 21 years old and then you go to 13 and 14 year olds, so it’s different,” Mercadante said, laughing at the thought. “You get a lot of the same headaches, surprisingly enough, when it comes to coaching but it’s been a lot of fun because these guys for the most part are like sponges. They want to learn and they want to get better and they’ll play hard for you.”
So exactly how much is too much? In the case of the Central Florida Gators, too much is never enough.