FORT MYERS, Fla. – Overnight rain forced Perfect Game Select Baseball Festival officials to move Saturday morning’s workout and batting practice sessions from jetBlue Park to one the complex’s back practice fields, but did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm the players and coaches felt for the inaugural event once they climbed off the player bus.
Forty of the top prospects from the high school classes of 2019 (five) and 2020 (35) gathered at the Boston Red Sox’s state of the art spring training facility under the direction of East Team head coach Gary White, the head coach at Estero (Fla.) High School, and West Team head coach Tom Woodley, the head coach at Mariner High School in Cape Coral, Fla.
Under bright sunshine that fueled the hot and humid conditions, the players – decked out in their newly acquired Nike practice gear – took batting practice, infield/outfield, ran the 60-yard dash and participated in the preliminary round of the Home Run Challenge, if they chose to do so.
“These are the best players in the country and they’re all showing what they’ve got,” West Team 2020 outfielder/left-handed pitcher Robert Hassell from Franklin, Tenn., said after taking his swings in the Home Run Challenge. “I really like it and it’s where you’d love to be; it’s what you wish for.”
The two head coaches, both of whom have already compiled impressive playing and coaching resumes, are also appreciative of the opportunity to be involved with the event. They were brought on board – along with their top assistants Troy Beall from Cape Coral High School and A.J. Reyes from Mariner High School – through the efforts of event organizer Ben Ford, the former big-leaguer and PG Series Director.
“I think, as usual, Perfect Game has knocked it out of the park. Ben Ford has done an incredible job in a short amount of time setting everything up,” White said Saturday morning. “It goes beyond the baseball game itself – I know they’ve raised a bunch of money for the children’s hospital, which really should be on the forefront, because it’s the most important thing.”
All 40 players and their families were involved in fund-raising efforts to benefit Fort Myers’ Golisano Children’s Hospital of Southwest Florida; all proceeds from the event will also be directed to Golisano.
On the baseball side, White noted that an event like the Select Baseball Festival is important to Perfect Game because it can begin tracking an elite prospect’s development at the outset of his high school career. The benefits for the young players is even larger.
“It’s an awesome way to introduce them to what Perfect Game is all about,” White said. “It’s about promoting their baseball career, getting the kids in front of college and professional scouts over the next four years. I don’t think there’s a negative to it at all; I think it’s only positives.”
After watching his West squad take batting practice Saturday morning, Woodley could only stand back and smile. It just felt great to be surrounded by so many talented young guys all dressed up in 14- and 15-year-old bodies.
“When I got the call it was a no-brainer; I didn’t even hesitate,” he said of the invitation he received asking if he would like to be involved. “If you love the game of baseball this is big, this is awesome. This is great for the game of baseball and for most of these kids here this is going to be the first time they’ve been around this much talent. It’s exciting and I’m looking forward to it.”
When Woodley is at his regular job at Mariner HS he finds himself spending more time working with the junior varsity players than the varsity players because the younger kids will be filling the varsity roster spots down the road. With a group like this, he can already see the tools starting to develop and he feels like he can help play a role in the prospects’ further development.
“With a lot of these kids you can see the big body – nice and lanky – and some of the kids their age haven’t hit that growth spurt yet. Their tools are just a little bit more advance,” he said.
White agreed: “When you enjoy the game, when you enjoy coaching the game and being around the game, I don’t think age really matters,” he said. “You take any kid – whether he’s 14 or he’s 17 – that is open to some helpful instruction, and if we can offer any advice that helps them get to the next level, that’s always going to be a positive.”
The preliminary round of the Home Run Challenge was held on Field 1 at the jetBlue Player Development Complex – as was the workout session – which is a replica practice field of jetBlue Park, the main stadium on the grounds. JetBlue Park (Fenway South) is, in turn, a replica of Boston’s Fenway Park in terms of field dimensions, complete with its own Green Monster in left field and Pesky Pole down the right field line.
Hassell and his West teammate Yanluis Ortiz, a powerfully built 2020 third baseman from Southlake, Texas, who has already committed to the University of Miami, were the only players to hit home runs Saturday afternoon.
2019 third baseman/outfielder Liam Deegan, the No. 27-ranked national prospect in his class, from Richmond, Va., and 2020 outfielder Estanli Castillo from the Dominican Republic will compete with Hassell and Ortiz in the Home Run Challenge Sunday afternoon based on towering shots they hit off the Field 1 “Monster” during BP and the Challenge’s prelims.
The players and their families are being housed at the spectacular Hyatt Regency Coconut Point Resort and Spa in Bonita Springs, Fla., about 20 miles southwest of jetBlue Park and are enjoying all of its amenities. The players ate breakfast and lunch at the resort Saturday and were to be honored at an Awards Dinner late Saturday night after their visit to the Golisano Children’s Hospital of South West Florida in Fort Myers late Saturday afternoon.
“I went down to Cary (N.C.) for the U.S. (Baseball) Team Trials and I thought that was really special. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to make the team but it was just special being down there,” Hassell said. “This is the closest thing that I can think of to being down there. The way we’re getting treated is just awesome and it’s just a lot of fun.
“That baseball mentality, all of these guys have it and it’s just so much easier to relate to all the other dudes here,” he continued. “It’s awesome because we all do the same things but we just do it from different parts of the country.”
After breakfast Sunday morning, the players will attend a Leadership Seminar at the Hyatt Regency, break for lunch and be out at jetBlue Park by 2 p.m. There will be another session of BP and an infield/outfield workout leading up to the start of the game a little after 7 p.m.; it will be broadcast live on Fox Sports Networks and live-streamed on MLB.com. The coaches have promised to stay in the background once that first pitch is thrown.
“This is basically an all-star game and we’re just going to turn them loose; we’ll let their abilities take over,” the East’s White said. “Let’s just go out there and let these kids prove why they’re here. … We’re going to unlock the gate and let them go.”
“We’re going to see the ball, hit the ball and have fun doing it,” the West’s Woodley added. “That’s just what they’re going to do, go out there and have fun and just do what they do best.”