It has been three days since I returned to my Iowa home from beautiful San Diego and the four entertaining and educational days that encompassed the 2011 Perfect Game All-American Classic presented by Rawlings.
I am settling back into a routine, although my body still wants to operate on the Pacific Time zone. Hey! Get out of bed already!
But now is the time to reflect on the event, one which brought together 46 of the nation’s top prospects in the high school class of 2012 and culminated with an East-West all-star game last Sunday (Aug. 14) at PETCO Park, the San Diego Padres’ striking downtown stadium.
Perfect Game didn’t pull this off on its own. It received a lot of support from working partners Rawlings, Reebok, Evoshield, Blue Ridge Sports & Entertainment, Inc., Topps, Rady Children’s Hospital, San Diego Hall of Champions, CBS Sports Network and Randy Jones All-American Sports Grill.
Getting to know you
My introduction to the event came first thing last Thursday morning (Aug. 11) when I walked into one of the conference rooms at the San Diego Marriott Mission Valley hotel and spotted PG All-Americans and East Team members Lance McCullers and Corey Seager. They were already signing posters and bats, getting fitted for their uniforms and getting their photos taken for their personalized Topps player card.
Each of the 46 All-Americans went through the same drill, and each received a haul of goods primarily from Rawlings and Reebok that took most of them two trips to tote up to their hotel room.
As more and more players arrived and got signed in, most of them gravitated toward the Evoshield Player Hospitality Room at the hotel, where they enjoyed ping-pong, air hockey and video games featuring big, flat-screen TV monitors. The hospitality room provided a perfect escape for the players during the little bit of down-time they enjoyed during their stay.
Over the next few days, I tried to talk to as many of the players as possible, some on the record most off. That first day alone I must have talked to at least half of the All-Americans, including Courtney Hawkins, Andrew Pullin, Nick Williams and Seager at some length.
A memorable conversation came on Saturday morning during a practice session at the University of San Diego with West Team pitchers Max Fried, Lucas Giolito, Cody Poteet and Hunter Virant. All four have committed to UCLA.
The boys on the bus
My assignment was to interact with the All-Americans as much as possible without getting in their way and becoming a nuisance. This was made especially easy by Blue Ridge Sports & Entertainment President David Gardiner finding me room on the teams’ bus, which was almost filled to capacity with 46 players, six coaches and other event personnel.
At any given moment, the interior of the bus was filled with at least a dozen separate conversations as the players got to know one another and began to form what are sure to be lifelong friendships. It was pretty cool being a part of that, as the bus and its ultra-friendly driver Caroline bussed us to the University of San Diego, Randy Jones All-American Sports Grill for lunch one day, Rady Children’s Hospital, Marine Corps Air Station Miramar and the San Diego Hall of Champions for the Awards Banquet Saturday night.
The final bus ride was perhaps the most exhilarating, at least for this middle-aged baseball fan. That trip came when we piled into Caroline’s bus just after noon on Sunday and made our way downtown to PETCO Park. It was one of the those afternoons the San Diego Chamber of Commerce likes to talk about – sunny, light breeze, about 75 degrees, little or no humidity. I was in heaven as we walked into PETCO, and I think all of the young players felt the same way.
Time well spent
The trips to Rady and Miramar on Friday afternoon were both enlightening and educational. At Rady, I stuck with a group of East teammates that included Puerto Rican phenom Carlos Correa and New York slugger Nelson Rodriguez. Correa received the Rawlings Defensive Player of Year at Saturday night’s banquet and Rodriguez won Sunday’s Home Run Derby.
It was a joy watching Correa and Rodriguez interact with one young, hesitant cancer patient at Rady. With Correa taking the lead, they were finally able to coax a smile from the youngster after lobbing him balls for him to swing at while he remained seated in wheelchair.
“I have always enjoyed being around little kids. I have a sister that is 2-years-old,” Correa, a 16-year-old kid himself, told me after the session. “I love kids, man. I love to be with them and play with them, and if I can something that makes them happy, I will do it.”
As I reported previously, at Miramar I went with a group that included All-Americans Clate Schmidt, Carson Fulmer and Andrew Pullin to observe them at the controls of an F-18 Marine Corps fighter jet simulator.
At one point, Schmidt’s father – retired Marine Corps Colonel Dwight Schmidt, who organized the visit – compared one necessary action while using the simulator to hitting an inside fastball. “Fastballs and fast planes,” Clate Schmidt said, practically rolling his eyes. “What a perfect connection.”
The game day experience
A constant for the players when they were at USD for practice sessions was the presence of a group of autograph seekers who waited for them to get off the bus, then hung around the dugouts at Cunningham Stadium. The players were always accommodating whenever their tight schedule allowed, and seemed to enjoy providing their John Hancock’s to the seekers.
Once in PETCO on game day, the number of those seekers increased dramatically in the hours before game. Dozens of fans waited by the rails stretching out from the two PETCO dugouts with their Sharpies and bats, balls and posters in hand for the players to sign. Since it’s reasonable to expect that many of the players will be in the big leagues one day, those autographs could potentially demand a hefty price.
The West Team won the game, 6-2, helped in part by a monstrous solo home run from Joey Gallo in the bottom of the second inning. Gallo’s shot traveled 442 feet, the longest home run in the history of the All-American Classic and the 10th longest every hit in PETCO Park’s eight-year history. Gallo was named the game’s MVP, joining a list of past winners that includes Ike Davis and Tim Beckham.
The MLB connection
Many of the players who were in San Diego last week are the future major-leaguers of their generation. It will be a thrill to be able to say I watched them play when they were still in high school but already recognized by Perfect Game as the best of the best.
During my time in San Diego, I came into contact with several former major-leaguers from my generation. I had conversations with future Hall of Famer Trevor Hoffman – the All-American Classic’s Honorary Chairman – the legendary Tommy John and 1976 NL Cy Young Award winner Randy Jones.
I also shared the team bus with West assistant coach Cecil Espy and East assistant Kevin Maris (the son of Roger Maris), and regularly ran across former big-league right-hander Lance McCullers Sr. – the father of All-American Lance McCullers – around the team hotel.
There was also a very brief encounter with a Hall-of-Famer that was totally unexpected.
As I followed the players out of PETCO at about 8:30 p.m. Sunday, the Padres were getting off their team bus at the stadium after playing a game in Cincinnati that afternoon. The players quickly grabbed their bags and headed for the cars, while one solitary figure picked up his bag and walked out to the sidewalk to wait for a ride.
The man was none other than the great Tony Gwynn, now the head coach at San Diego State who helps out occasionally as a commentator on the Padres’ television broadcasts.
Several of the All-American Classic coaches approached Gwynn and shook his hand, and Espy and Omar Washington had their photos taken with him. He was as cheerful and accommodating as you can probably imagine.
I just stood back and took it all in. It was a perfect ending to what was truly a perfect weekend.