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Friday, June 16, 2017

National a 'blessing' for Simmons

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

FORT MYERS, Fla. – In early July 2014, a 5-foot-11, 165-pound, 14-year-old out of Macon, Ga., showed up at the jetBlue Park Player Development Complex proudly wearing a Titan Sports Academy uniform, and over a five-day stretch played well enough to earn all-tournament recognition at the 14u Perfect Game BCS Finals.

That was not the first PG tournament for high school freshman-to-be Kendall Logan Simmons – he had played with Titans Baseball at the 14u PG-East Cobb Invitational at PG Park South-LakePoint a month earlier – but it was noteworthy because it foretold the future for the young man.

It was the first of what now stands at 10 PG all-tournament team selections – most while playing with the East Cobb Astros – with many more certain to come in 2017.

And here in mid-June 2017, things are coming full-circle for the now 6-foot-3, 190-pound, 17-year-old Simmons, a primary shortstop. He is back at jetBlue Park – at the stadium, this time, and not on the back fields – this weekend taking part in the preeminent Perfect Game National Showcase, which began its six-day run Friday morning.

The PG National is the 28th Perfect Game event at which Simmons has performed – it is his fourth PG showcase – and Simmons considers the invitation he received as a crowning achievement (so far, anyway).

“I’ve been looking forward to this event since my freshman year,” he said Friday morning while standing just outside jetBlue Park’s third base dugout. “I’ve always played up (an age class) and all the guys that I’ve played with were always so excited about the PG National and told me how great it is. … It’s a good experience and I’m blessed to be out here.”

Simmons is the son of Michael and Felicia Simmons, and Felicia was watching her son’s morning workout session from a shaded area high in jetBlue Park’s main grandstand. She confirmed that it had, indeed, been a goal of Kendall Logan’s to one day be on the big stage that defines this blockbuster scouting/college recruiting event.

“He’s been waiting for an invitation to the PG National for a long time; this is what he’s been playing for since he was 12 years old,” Felicia said. “He’s come to so many (PG) events and he’s been working hard and getting better, and he wanted to be at this event.”

There are a lot of reasons Simmons received the invitation, of course, but his high level of play and his high moral character are neck-and-neck at the top of the list. He will be a senior in the fall at Tattnall Square Academy, a Christian college prep school in Macon, and has committed to Georgia Tech University; he is as good-natured as a summer day is long.

Simmons has risen to No. 11 overall (No. 3 shortstop) in PG’s class of 2018 national prospect rankings, due in no small part to those 10 all-tournament selections, and his Top Prospect List inclusion at the 2014 and 2015 PG National Underclass Showcase-Main Event here in Fort Myers and at the 2016 PG All-American Underclass Games showcase in San Diego.

“I’ve worked extremely hard over the years and it’s just a blessing from God to give me the ability, and for him to put the people in my life to help me get better and strive to be the best that I can be,” he said.

His parents enrolled Simmons at Tattnall Square when he was in seventh grade, and the baseball program was a big reason why. The coaching staff is very talented – had coach Joey Hiller is a former minor-leaguer and one of his assistants is former big-league right-hander and six-time All-Star Kevin Brown – and Michael and Felicia felt being part of the successful program would help with their son’s development. It appears to have been a sound decision.

The Trojans won eight Georgia Independent School Association (GISA) state championships between 2000 and 2014 before moving to the Georgia High School Association (GHSA) in 2015. They won their first GHSA state championship a year later in 2016 and was the GHSA Class A state runner-up this spring.

“I’ve been to four state tournaments because I started playing on the varsity in eighth-grade,” Simmons said. “This past year we lost in the state championship but it’s still been a blessing to be there; it’s been a great experience.”

It has also been a great experience for Simmons to be associated with the Marietta, Ga.-based East Cobb Baseball (ECB) program, under the direction of Guerry Baldwin. He’s played previously with Baldwin with the East Cobb Astros and more recently for James Beavers with the East Cobb Yankees.

The Yankees won the 18u Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational in Emerson, Ga., and Simmons was named the tournament’s Most Valuable Player, a first for the talented shortstop.

“They’re my family,” Simmons said of the people at ECB. “Coach Guerry took me in to play on his 16-year-old team (in 2015) with guys like Braxton Garrett and Will Benson, and gave me the opportunity to play up because he saw something other coaches didn’t see. He took me under his wing and he’s been kind of like my father for the summer. … They took care of me and it’s been very beneficial.”

“He’s just built great relationships (at ECB),” his mom added. “Being from Macon, Ga. … he had to work really hard to catch up with those guys that have the best facilities (and) the best training (centers), because we don’t have a lot of that locally. It’s been challenging but it’s certainly been worth it.”

Simmons said his parents and his two older brothers, Austin and Blake – Blake Simmons attended 15 PG events from 2012-15 and is a member of the baseball team at Georgia Southern University – have been instrumental in helping him become the best ballplayer that he can be. They’ve pushed him along the way because they know he’s a special talent and they don’t want to see him fail.

He feels like his improvement came in leaps and bounds this past winter, the first in which he didn’t play basketball. It was his first “real offseason” where he could concentrate on schoolwork and baseball without a third endeavor demanding his attention.

A longtime fan of Georgia Tech’s sports teams and a big fan of Yellow Jackets’ head baseball coach Danny Hall, Simmons didn’t have to think very long and hard about his college commitment when the Tech offer came his way. And during his conversation with PG Friday morning he also mentioned that Tech’s reputation as a strong academic institution figured prominently into his decision.

Academics are important to Simmons – he carries a 3.0 grade-point average at Tattnall Square – and he said he has already started to put together a plan for what he might want to study once he gets on campus at Tech (the 2018 MLB June Amateur Draft will probably determine whether he ever makes it to Atlanta, of course).

“My parents brought me up making me understand that academics are the most important thing,” Simmons said. “If I got a bad grade, my parents would tell me that I couldn’t play baseball that day because my grades came first. It’s always been a big part of my life.”

The PG National Showcase serves as the final and most important step in the PG All-American Classic selection process; an overwhelming majority of the players invited to August’s Classic are identified based on their performances at the National.

“It would mean the world to me to get an invitation, because I’ve heard that it’s a great experience,” Simmons said. “These kids work so hard and we’re all very blessed to even be out here (at the PG National), and whether you make the (PG A-A Classic) or not, God still blessed you with this opportunity to come out and play the game you love.”

Fourteen alumni of the PG National Showcase were selected in the first round of this year’s MLB June Amateur Draft, including the Nos. 1 and 2 overall selections, Royce Lewis and Hunter Greene; they were here just last year.

Thanks to his coast-to-coast travels and the fact that he has always played up with East Cobb, Simmons said he knew quite a few of the class of 2017 prospects that were drafted this week. He’s likely to know every one of the high school guys selected in the 2018 draft.

“I’ve always been younger than everyone else (on my baseball teams) so it’s kind of crazy to think that it might be my turn,” he said. “But it’s all in God’s hands and I trust what he has planned for me.”

Felicia Simmons, too, looked back on Monday’s first round of the MLB June Amateur Draft those two PG National alumni went off the board first, and thought she may have detected a glint in her son’s eyes.

“He’s thinking that, hopefully, if they can, I can,” she said, reading Kendall Logan’s mind. “If I work as hard as they’ve worked, maybe one day I’ll have that opportunity.”

The 17th PG National Showcase promises to be a memorable occasion for each one of its more than 280 participants, so Simmons’ reply when asked what he hopes to take away from the event when he returns to Macon in a couple of days wasn’t all that surprising.

“Memories,” he said without hesitation. “Some of these guys out here, we’ve been playing together since we were toddlers. We don’t all play for the same travel team anymore, but just to come out here one more time and to be with each other will be a good memory.”

His mom expressed a similar sentiment:

“I hope that he can see that he can compete, that he can see where he compares with other kids in his class and just enjoy the experience overall,” Felicia said. “We don’t know where it’s going to take him but he can enjoy it while he’s doing it, and hopefully good things will happen after that.

 “Just watching him, watching his teammates – people that he’s grown up with – all the kids out here that we’ve either played with or played against throughout the years, watching them grow and develop as players, it’s amazing,” she concluded. “This is a great event; I wouldn’t miss it for anything.”

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