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Saturday, August 23, 2014

Living the baseball life

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – Sitting in one of the box seats near Perfect Game Field at Veterans Memorial Stadium late Friday afternoon in near suffocating heat and humidity, Leann Fitzgerald was all smiles as she settled into what has comfortably become the only life she knows: the baseball life.

Leann is the wife of former St. Louis Cardinals’ first-round draft pick Mike Fitzgerald; her oldest son, Michael, wrapped up a four-year career at Indiana State this past spring and is now a San Diego Padres farmhand.

And on Friday afternoon a younger son, Tyler Fitzgerald, was getting ready to take the field for the workout session at this weekend’s Perfect Game Midwest Top Prospect Showcase, the first PG showcase experience of his still budding career. Leann had to admit she was the matriarch of quite a baseball family.

“I didn’t know a thing about it when I first met my husband but now I know everything about it,” she said with a laugh. “I’m the expert now.”

Based on results alone, this is a family of experts, and before the last chapter of this book is penned, 16-year-old Ryan just may prove to possess the most expertise of them all – although topping his dad’s selection as the 20th overall pick of the first round in the 1984 MLB amateur draft is going to be difficult.

Tyler Fitzgerald is a 6-foot-2, 175-pound shortstop who is just beginning his junior year at Rochester (Ill.) High School. He enters the school year ranked 106th overall nationally – No. 6 in Illinois – in the class of 2016 and committed to NCAA Division I powerhouse Louisville in the fall of his sophomore year.

He has been working with the esteemed Chicago-based Elite Baseball Training organization for more than a year now and played in three PG WWBA national championships with the Elite Baseball’s 16u team during that time. He is among the highest ranked 2016s taking part in the PG Midwest Top Prospect Showcase (the PG Midwest Underclass Showcase is running simultaneously).

“I thought it was important, for sure, to get my first Perfect Game showcase in,” Fitzgerald said Friday. “I thought the exposure would be good to get my name in the (PG) system a little bit; I’m anxious to see how it plays out. I don’t have any expectations. I just want to come out here and play my game and see what happens.”

Mike Fitzgerald usually makes these trips with his son but was unable to do so this weekend due to work obligations. Leann filled in nicely in his absence.

“I don’t get to travel that much with him over the summer so this is good for me,” she said on a relentlessly steamy late afternoon in Eastern Iowa. “I’m excited for him. I don’t think he knows anybody here, but he’ll be fine.”

It certainly appears the young Fitzgerald will, indeed, be just fine as he spends the next two years wrapping up his high school and Perfect Game careers. He showed he knows his way around the shortstop position during his infield workout session and threw 86 miles-per-hour across the infield, and effort that tied for third best at the showcase.

“I’m trying to get a little stronger and see how things turn out in the future,” he said, adding that he feels attending events like the PG Midwest Top will only benefit him in the long run. “You see all the big-time players come out to these events, so I decided to come out here and showcase my skills a little bit. It’s just a lot of fun playing with the best players in the country.”

His relationship with Elite Baseball Training will only make him better. He played with the group for the first time at the 2013 PG WWBA Underclass World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., and this year was with them at the PG WWBA 17u National Championship in Emerson, Ga., and at the 16u PG World Series back in Fort Myers.

“I love the team very much,” Fitzgerald said. “I like all the coaches, and they’re all very helpful and respectful. I like playing with that group of kids and it’s a fun time. I really feel like it’s improved my game; I love traveling with the Elite team.”

Rich Ruffolo, the Professional & Collegiate Liaison and 16u head coach at Elite Baseball Training, has worked closely with Fitzgerald over the past year.

“(He) has a tremendous baseball IQ, phenomenal work ethic both on and off the field and is a real family oriented young man,” Ruffolo said in an undated blog post on “In the short time I have coached Tyler it has been an honor to get to know him and his family. We are very happy he chose Elite Baseball Training to continue his grown and development on and off the field.”

Before suiting up for Elite Baseball Training this summer, Fitzgerald enjoyed a very fine sophomore season playing for head coach Matt Carlson and the Rochester High School Rockets. In 30 games, Fitzgerald batted .370 (34-for-92) with five doubles, three triples and a home run, with 24 RBI, 32 runs scored, a .964 OPS and 14 stolen bases.

The Cardinals took Mike Fitzgerald Sr. in the first round of the 1984 draft out of Middle Georgia Junior College, and Mike ended up spending all or parts of seven seasons in the minor leagues. But he also played 13 games for the big-league Cards in 1988, a jewel on anybody’s crown.

“He’s been a positive influence, for sure,” Fitzgerald said. “He helps me a lot on and off the field, and he tells me what I need to work on and what I need to get better at, and it’s helpful, for sure. He’s been teaching me everything I know.”

Michael Fitzgerald Jr., Tyler’s older brother, has also been a big influence. While Michael himself did not participate in any PG events he recognized their value.

“When we first started with Tyler, his older brother is the one that said, ‘Hey Dad, we really need to get Tyler into some of these … Perfect Game showcases to get him noticed,” Leann said. “It’s a lot different now than it was when Mike and Michael were growing up – these showcases are more important.

“It seems like a lot of people put a lot of emphasis on looking at the stats and the video, and they know what they’re looking for.”

Tyler Fitzgerald said Louisville was the school he was most interested in attending even when he first started the recruiting process, so when the offer was made last year, the then-15-year-old pounced.

He was taken in immediately by not just the school’s facilities but the entire campus, as well as the entire coaching staff headed by Dan McDonnell. It’s also nice that the school is only about a 4 hour drive from his home in Rochester.

The Fitzgerald baseball family will remain close together – depending on where Michael’s minor league assignments take him, of course – as perhaps it was meant to be.

While speaking with PG, Leann made the observation that Tyler is built a little differently than Michael Sr. and Michael Jr. The two older Fitzgeralds were/are catchers and built to fit that position. Tall and slender, Tyler is built more like an infielder or outfielder. And Tyler, being the youngest, is distinct in another way.

 “The nice thing with Tyler is, we traveled so much with Michael that he had to learn the game (while playing it) while Tyler got to actually watch the game and learn,” his mother said. “It’s been a lot of fun for him.”

For this baseball family, it could become a lot more fun as the years go by.

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