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Monday, June 09, 2014

Camaraderie key at Jr. National

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – Throughout a Perfect Game playing career that he began as a 14-year-old in February of 2012, the now 16-year-old Joey Polak has seen some sights and learned a lot of new names.

Polak is from the Mississippi River town of Quincy, Ill. – he previously lived across the river in Canton, Mo. – and will begin his junior year at Quincy Notre Dame High School in the fall. The family has moved around a lot; Polak was born in Chicago and also lived in Florida for seven years as a youngster.

While in attendance at 11 PG events over two years, he has been on playing fields in the Phoenix area, in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, and right here in Fort Myers. More trips are planned this summer, including one to Perfect Game South at LakePoint near Cartersville, Ga.

But it is not the places as much as the people that Polak enjoys.

“I really like seeing old friends and meeting new people; that’s the most important thing to me,” Polak said Monday morning while preparing to take part in this year’s Perfect Game Junior National Showcase at JetBlue Park.

“Baseball, I feel like it’s a small world,” he said. “Having my dad play in the minors, he calls people up and the next thing you know we’re in a tournament with a new team. It’s a small world and getting to know new guys from different areas is definitely important to me.”

Polak is one of a record-setting 175 prospects competing at the PG Jr. National Monday through Wednesday, and one of the most highly regarded. A 6-foot-5, 210-pound third baseman, he came into the event ranked the No. 26 top national prospect in the class of 2016 (No. 3 in Illinois).

“Perfect Game invited us and we just thought it was a great idea to come down for the experience and the good exposure,” Polak said. “We’re just coming out here looking forward to doing good and, hopefully, showing everyone what I’ve got.”

Polak is coming off a very successful 2013 PG season when he took part in six events, including four tournaments, one showcase and a season in the PG Iowa Fall League. He was named to the Top Prospect List at the 2013 Midwest Underclass Showcase and to the all-tournament team at two events, in what was a very important summer for him.

In October of 2012, during his freshman year in high school, Polak underwent an ulnar nerve transposition procedure on his right elbow (not to be confused with Tommy John surgery). He never missed any playing time, however, including during his freshman season in the spring of 2013.

He has always been a primary third baseman while also working at shortstop and isn’t the least bit worried about his arm strength, despite the procedure. He threw 84 miles-per-hour across the infield during Monday morning’s workout session, an effort that ranked in the top half of the field.

“It’s all good now,” he said with a laugh, “everything feels good. When I first had (the procedure) … I was worried; I was, like, ‘Am I every going to be where I was?’ I fought through it; I went through therapy six or seven days a week, trying to work hard and get out of it. Now that’s everything out of the way with that, I can now focus on the things I need to do to get better.”

Polak is in Southwest Florida with his father, Rich Polak, who shares his son’s passion for baseball and the people the game attracts.

“It’s always great to have Joey around some of the better players in his (graduating) class to kind of give a better measure of where he’s at,” Rich said Monday. “Perfect Game puts on great events … and Joey really enjoys the camaraderie with the kids, the other players.

“It’s kind of a thing where you figure out where you’re at because sometimes when you play at different levels – in high school or summer ball – you won’t have all the great players there. At an event like this, you get quite a few.”

The New York Yankees drafted Rich Pollack out of the University of Central Florida in the 20th round of the 1989 draft MLB amateur draft, and he spent six years (1989-94) in the Yankees farm system.

“My dad wasn’t a big guy and he pitched for the Yankees organization and he was a bulldog, he was a fighter. I feel like I got that from him and he’s definitely been an inspiration,” Polak said.

“I grew up in a baseball family and I played with the Yankees (organization) for six years and baseball is our life; we love it,” Rich said. “Anytime we can go somewhere and be around it or be involved with it – I’d do it for a living if I could.”

And, as fortune would have it, his father isn’t the only former New York Yankees farmhand that Joey Pollack is in position to learn from.

His coach at Notre Dame High is Chris Martin, who spent the 2001 season as a Yankees minor-leaguer. Joey Polak will play with Rick Strickland and the St. Louis Pirates this summer for the first time, after spending the a  month with his local American Legion team. The Yankees also selected Strickland in the 1989 draft (34th round) and he was in their minor league system through 1992.

“He’s one of those kids … he’s like a sponge,” Rich Polak said of his son. “He listens to everybody and takes what works for him, and then kind of files the other stuff away because, you never know, you might need it down the road.”

Polak, who has not committed to a college, called hitting his “favorite thing to do” on a baseball field, adding that he feels in control when he’s at the plate with a bat in his hand; he can hold his own playing the infield, too.

As far as what he hoped to accomplish at the PG Jr. National, he said only that everyone sees he is always working his hardest. “I just come out here and do what I do best and go from there,” he said.

Rich Polak is still very much involved with the game, following his son’s endeavors. He serves as Martin’s top assistant at NDHS and has also helped coach Joey for two seasons (2012 and 2013) in the Perfect Game Iowa Fall League.

“If you have a son that wants to get showcased and wants to get out in front of the (college coaches) and pro (scouts) and all of that, this is the place to do it,” Rich said. “… Is it worth it? I would recommend it to everyone that wants to get their kid exposed to college.

“It’s great to watch these kids grow and watch how they progress, both physically and with the maturing process,” he said. “To watch them go from young teenager to young adult, it’s a lot of fun.”

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