FORT MYERS, Fla. – At last year’s inaugural Perfect Game Select Baseball Festival – played at jetBlue Park over the Labor Day Weekend – a humble class of 2020 catcher from Peosta, Iowa, by the name of Calvin Harris became the event’s Most Valuable Player.
Harris was the offensive star of a game in which both the West and East teams’ pitchers were dominant. The left-handed swinger earned the MVP honors after slicing a two-out, two-run single down the left-field line in the bottom of the second inning, runs that proved pivotal in the West’s 3-1 victory.
Peosta is a small town in Northeast Iowa that lies about 12 miles to the west of the Mississippi River city of Dubuque. It’s an area of the state long known for its quality town-team, semi-pro leagues and is also home of the iconic “Field of Dreams” movie site.
This year’s 2nd annual PG Select Baseball Festival all-star game was scheduled to be played Sunday night at jetBue Park and for the second straight year a catcher from Iowa’s Dubuque County is hoping to help Team West to a win. And Ian Moller, the No. 7-ranked overall national prospect in the class of 2021, has the tools to deliver.
Moller is a 6-foot, 170-pound, 14-year-old freshman at Dubuque Wahlert Catholic High School who showed some impressive upside during the first two practice sessions, an inter-squad game and the preliminary round of the Home Run Challenge at jetBlue Park Player Development Complex Friday and Saturday.
Harris’ big game of a year ago aside, young Iowa prospects don’t often become the center of attention on these national stages, and while Moller certainly hasn’t stolen the show down here this weekend, he’s done more than hold his own.
“Just hanging out with the guys and doing things like the home run derby, it’s just a great atmosphere to be around,” he told PG on Saturday afternoon. “It’s really what you want to be a part of to be a baseball player and be around all the best players in the country.”
Every prospect invited to the PG Select Baseball Festival this year and last has reported an instant burst of excitement and anticipation when the invitation was first extended. In Moller’s case, however, his reaction was much more muted.
“At first, I thought it was fake, to be honest; I didn’t believe it,” he said through a laugh. “But it was real and I was really happy about it, and then it just made me want to work harder. … I know that my training has to go up to another level whenever I get named to something big, so I just always try to step it up every day.”
Being from Iowa, Moller might sometimes feel like he’s forced to approach the game at the national level with one arm tied behind his back, but he’s able to work through that. His dad, Steven Moller, got him connected with Illinois-based Top Tier Baseball at a young age and since that relationship was formed, his game took off.
Top Tier’s facility in McCook, Ill., is about a three-hour drive from Moller’s home in Dubuque but he keeps in touch with the staff through phone calls and text messages three or four times a week. They make sure Moller is staying on top of his training while also making sure he stays humble as more and more accolades land on his lap. Moller also makes the trip over the facility on as many Sunday’s as he possibly can.
But like so many of the young guys that are at the Festival this weekend – the 14- and 15-year-olds who have risen to the top of their specific age-group national rankings – Moller credits his father for helping him develop into the special young ballplayer he’s become.
It’s been Steven who has thrown him BP every day and who has taught him just about everything he knows. There have been other coaches – especially those at Top Tier – who have helped Moller in very important ways, of course, but it is his dad who works with him every day and makes sure he stays accountable and on track. Steven Moller, on the other hand, defers to Top Tier.
“The best decision we’ve ever made was getting him involved with Top Tier – just love the way they’ve handled things,” he said. “They’ve been a great source and a great help for him and it’s the best thing that we’ve ever done when it comes to his baseball so far.”
Another hurdle Moller and other elite Iowa prep prospects need to clear is one put up by the Iowa High School Athletic Association. The IAHSAA sanctions only a summer season – no spring ball – which means the top guys will have to decide if they want to play for their high school team in June and July or if they’ll hook up with a travel-ball team and play in front of college coaches/recruiters and MLB scouts on the bigger stages across the country.
Moller hasn’t had to worry about that up to this point, and the Select Baseball Festival is the ninth PG event he has participated in. The 2017 summer season has been especially rewarding as Moller was named to the all-tournament team at both the 15u and 16u PG WWBA National Championships while playing for Top Tier; he was also named to the Top Prospect List at April’s Spring Top Prospect Showcase in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
He’s not sure yet which direction he will take in the summer of the 2018 when he will still be considered a Wahlert freshman. He wants to stay loyal to his high school and buddies back him in Dubuque, but at the same time it’s hard for a young man to pass on playing on the big PG WWBA and PG BCS tournaments in Emerson, Ga., and here in Fort Myers if the opportunity presents itself.
Steven Moller honestly believes that at some point his son will play for the Dubuque Wahlert Golden Eagles just based on a strong relationship the Moller’s have with Wahlert head coach Kory Tuescher. They’ve talked about the possibility of Ian playing both in the summer of 2018 and after that, his father said, it’s likely Ian will play more full-time with his high school team.
Wahlert traditionally has had a strong baseball program and the Golden Eagles reached the semifinals at this year’s Iowa Class 3A state tournament. But even playing for one of Iowa’s most high-profile prep programs, Moller would really have to shine in order to receive any attention nationally, and Steven is certainly aware of that basic fact.
“I think maybe you just have to work harder to get noticed, because obviously the bigger college coaches don’t come to Iowa to watch just a couple of kids play,” he said. “You have to go to some of the bigger travel tournaments and maybe even get the opportunity to do something like this to even get on the map.”
When he’s playing the field, Moller is a catcher through-and-through and he relishes the role he plays behind the plate. There is the thrill of being in control, for one thing, but that’s not nearly as satisfying as the feeling he gets when he senses that maybe he’s helping make his pitchers a little better in the process. In reality, there just isn’t much about the game Moller doesn’t enjoy.
“I just love how the ball hits the bat, I like the sound of the cleats on the concrete; I just love everything about it,” he said. “I love hitting every day and I love throwing guys out when I’m catching. I just love helping the team out and doing everything I can from behind the plate because that’s where everybody’s focused on.”
When a prospect is 14 years old and loves the game as much as Moller does, the desire to improve and achieve the closest thing to perfection as possible can become all-consuming. Moller doesn’t overdo it, of course, but he does watch a lot of video just to see what adjustments he needs to make to his swing or his actions behind the bat; he also spends a lot of time in the weight room.
Something must be working. This weekend he’s found himself riding the same bus and eating meals right alongside the other nine prospects that PG ranks in the top 10 from the class of 2021.
“Obviously, playing with the best down here is going to show you what you’re bad at and what you’re good at,” Moller said. “Hopefully, this is going to show me what I need to work on more. These guys are the best in the country, so if you’re down here and you’re doing good, it just makes you feel good about yourself, knowing that all the work you put in is paying off.”
Each of the 38 players at Saturday’s practice session took part in the Home Run Challenge and Moller was one of only about a half-dozen or so to hit a home run on Field 1 at the sprawling, six-field jetBlue complex. He, like the others, watched with both respect and admiration as top Mississippi corner-infielder Blaze Jordan – the No. 2-ranked 2021 prospect in the land – dropped five bombs over the left field fence.
“It’s really a lot of fun being out here with all the other guys cheering you on,” Moller said of taking part in the Challenge. “When you watch people like Blaze hitting, it makes you step your game up a little bit; it makes you better.”
On Sunday night, Moller will try to be a part of a second straight victory for Team West, and maybe – if the night shakes out like it did a year ago – become the second catcher from Dubuque County, Iowa, to be named the MVP.
To Steven Moller’s way of thinking, his son has already benefitted just by getting to spend some quality time around the other 37 top guns. He doesn’t necessarily consider the PG Select Baseball Festival a measuring stick but at least Ian will be able to say, OK, these are the kids I’m going to compete with in college or at the next level if that happens. And there’s a lot more to it than that, too.
“I hope he can take away new friendships; I want him to interact with a lot of these kids and gain some friendships that are going to last a lifetime,” Steven said. “And another thing I hope he gains is just knowledge.
“The more information that he can take in, the more knowledge he can get from players, from coaches, that’s what I hope he takes in, and then he can take that information and use it the best way he sees fit.”