General | Professional | 4/7/2017

Dodgers' All-Stars glance back

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

Nine full seasons into what is shaping up to be a first-ballot Hall of Fame Major League Baseball career, 29-year-old Los Angeles Dodgers left-hander Clayton Kershaw can lay claim to three National League Cy Young Awards (six top-5’s in the balloting), one NL Most Valuable Player Award, six All-Star Game selections, four ERA titles and a Rawlings Gold Glove Award.

One full season into his MLB career, 22-year-old Dodgers shortstop Corey Seager has already pocketed an NL Rookie of the Year Award, an All-Star berth and a third-place finish in the NL MVP Award balloting, all in 2016. With two full big-league seasons under his belt, 24-year-old Dodgers centerfielder Joc Pederson has an All-Star Game appearance on his résumé.

But before any of those three NL All-Stars cashed their first paychecks as professional baseball players, they were standouts on their respective high school and travel ball teams, performing at such high levels that they were drafted at the close of their prep careers, and opted to bypass college.

Kershaw was – and still is today – a special case. The Dodgers selected him with the No. 7 overall pick of the first-round in the 2006 MLB June Amateur Draft right out of Highland Park High School (University Park, Texas), confident from the beginning they had hit the jackpot.

He was a Highland Park HS classmate and baseball teammate of Detroit Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford, who went on to an enjoy an all-American career at the University of Georgia and who the Lions selected with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2009 NFL Draft. Those years spent at Highland Park (2003-06) remain near and dear to Kershaw.

“I do enjoy thinking back to our high school days; some of my best friends played on our high school team,” he told PG during a short conversation at the Camelback Ranch Spring Training Complex in Glendale, Ariz., in mid-March.

“Just hanging out with those guys … and getting to play the game and going to eat at Whataburger after the game and all that stuff. It was just a part of my high school experience and I had a blast.”

Kershaw also participated in travel ball, playing with the Dallas Tigers. He was with the Tigers at the PG/BA (now the PG WWBA) World Championship in Fort Myers, Fla., in 2004, where he flashed an 89-mph fastball, 68 mph curve and 78 mph change-up. Right-hander Shawn Tolleson was also on that Tigers team; he was a teammate of Kershaw’s with the Dodgers in 2012-13 and pitched the last three seasons with the Texas Rangers.

The Dodgers plucked Seager with the No. 18 overall pick of the first-round in the 2012 MLB Draft out of Northwest Cabarrus High School (Concord, N.C.), three years after his brother Kyle Seager – also a Northwest Cabarrus grad – was a third-round pick of the Seattle Mariners in the 2009 MLB Draft, out of the University of North Carolina. Kyle has been the Mariners’ starting third baseman for the past five full seasons.

Corey Seager was also a star shortstop for the North Carolina-based Dirtbags Baseball travel ball organization during his high school years, playing in seven PG WWBA tournaments with the program from 2009-11. He loved his experiences playing at Northwest Cabarrus with equally fond memories of playing for Andy Partin and the Dirtbags.

“It’s a lot of fun, and that’s kind of when baseball is really innocent. You were playing with your buddies; you were playing to have fun,” Seager told PG, also speaking from Camelback Ranch last month. “Obviously, we were competing and we were trying to win, but (travel ball) was the time you (went) back to the hotel, you played in the pool and you hung out with each other. It was just a bunch of fun.”

In addition to his travel ball exploits, Seager also gained the attention of the national scouting community with his performances at the 2011 PG National Showcase and 2011 PG All-American Classic. He called the showcase experiences “nerve-racking” but his advice to today’s young prospects that are just getting started on the showcase circuit is simple: Don’t worry about it.

“Just go out there and don’t really try to compete against other people, just kind of compete against yourself (and) do what you can do the best you can. That’s all you can really do,” he said.

Ten of the 45 prospects that filled the East and West team rosters at the 2011 PG All-American Classic have already made their major-league debuts. It’s a number that includes the Cubs’ Addison Russell and Albert Almora and the Astros’ Carlos Correa and Lance McCullers, in addition to Seager; Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback Jameis Winston, the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 NFL Draft, also played in that Classic.

“You got to play against the (best) competition from all over the country,” Seager said, recalling his PG A-A Classic experience. “It wasn’t just your area, so you played against everybody, and it was kind of (getting to) see where you were, see how you compared, see how your team compared; it was a good experience.”

Pederson wasn’t as highly acclaimed as Kershaw and Seager coming out of Palo Alto (Calif.) High School in 2010, but when the Dodgers selected him in the 11th round of the 2010 MLB Draft, he decided to sign instead of heading off to the University of Southern California, where he had committed. And like Kershaw and Seager, he remembers his high school years with a certain fondness.

“It’s the team chemistry; you do a lot of things together …,” Pederson said, also speaking from Camelback Ranch. “You’re in school together, you go out to eat together, and it’s kind of like when you first have cars so you’re just kind of hanging out.”

In addition to being an important part of his high school team, Pederson played travel ball with the NorCal Baseball organization, another experience he said he enjoyed immensely.

He did a lot of traveling as a member of that program, which in turn made him even more appreciative of the people who provided him with those opportunities, especially Stu and Shelly Pederson, his dad and mom. Stu Pederson, an outfielder, played in eight games for the Dodgers in 1985.

“You never realize it until now, just how exhausting it must be for your parents,” he said. “You have so much energy as a little kid but they’re trucking you around … and doing all this crazy stuff so that I could have fun and play baseball. I’m extremely fortunate (to have had) that; I have some great parents.”

Parental guidance was important to all three of these big-league All-Stars, and Kershaw is quick to salute his mother, Marianne, who raised him after his parents divorced when he was 10 years old.

“My mom made such an effort to keep us in the school district that we were in and get to go to such a great public school; to get to be on a good baseball team and to have great friends,” he told PG. “And, also the travel ball and all that stuff, it was such a luxury that you might take for granted a little bit when you were a kid.

“Looking back on it you realize what a blessing it was because not many kids have that opportunity. I feel very fortunate I got to do that.”

With most of the country’s high school seasons rapidly reaching their conclusion, the 2017 Perfect Game spring and summer showcase season and summer WWBA and BCS tournament seasons are ready to roll out the welcome mat for this year’s prep prospects.

It took a focused mind-set for the Dodgers’ Kershaw, Seager and Pederson to realize their high school dreams of one day playing in the major leagues. The same will be required of this year’s batch of high-schoolers if they hope to reach the top rung on the ladder.

“Every game (in the big leagues) there’s pressure, and you’ve got to find a way to prepare the right way so that you know you did everything possible to be successful,” Pederson offered in the way of advice. “And if you (make an) out, like the best do seven out of 10 times, you’re still doing great and you did everything you could all 10 times to succeed.

“You need to continue to get better,” he continued. “As long as I’m playing this game I’m going to keep trying to get better and … never be satisfied or content.”

Added Kershaw: “I always say, just have fun with it. I think people take it so seriously when they’re younger, and they burn out. I always had a great time when I was a kid – I enjoyed playing – and when you do have fun you’re going to put in the work (necessary) to get better at it because you do have fun playing the game.

“I just think that’s so important for young guys; don’t burn yourself out, play other sports if you want to,” he continued. “… You don’t have to specialize when you’re 15-years-old; there’s plenty of time to figure out all that stuff. If you’re athletic and you just continue to improve on your athleticism, that in turn will help your baseball.”

Kershaw showed the domination that has come to be expected in the Dodgers' 14-3 victory over the San Diego Padres on Opening Day (April 3), allowing one earned run on two hits and striking out eight with just one walk in seven innings of work. Ho-hum. Seager singled twice and drove in three runs and Pederson dived head-first into the season, slugging a grand slam and driving in five.

As the season progresses, Seager will try to become just the third player in MLB history to earn Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards in consecutive seasons, joining the Red Sox’s Dustin Pedroia (2007-08) and the Cubs’ Kris Bryant (2015-16).

But even if all the hard work Seager put in during his high school years hadn’t been rewarded with his name already being mentioned among baseball’s best, he wouldn’t have felt cheated. He realized at a very young age all the benefits the game can provide.

“It teaches you how to compete, it teaches you how to be ready, it teaches you how to show up every day and give it your best,” he concluded. “It kind of trains you to work, basically. … It’s not going to be given to you, it’s competition and you’ve got to go out there and earn it.”

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