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Tournaments | Story | 10/16/2018

Jupiter: 20 years and counting

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Albert Almora, Jesse Winker, David Dahl (Perfect Game)

CEDAR RAPIDS, Iowa – This mostly comfortable but also somewhat unremarkable city in Eastern Iowa is far removed – in a dizzying number of ways, truth be told – from the Atlantic Coast city of Jupiter, Fla. But when I sat down in Andy Ford’s cramped and cluttered office at Perfect Game headquarters here for a couple of different conversations late last week, the talk was all Jupiter all the time.

The first sit-down was completely informal and it would have been accurate to say that Andy was pulling his hair out while concentrating on the task he undertaken if, in fact, Andy had any hair left on his noggin to pull out.

He was attempting, on this 20th anniversary of the first Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association (WWBA) World Championship, to come up with the top 20 prospects that performed at each of the previous 19 PG WWBA Worlds, an event known throughout the amateur baseball world simply as “Jupiter.”

After days of research, Andy had made lists for only the first three events – 1999-2001 – and was more than a little bit discouraged by the fact that those early years would be the easiest ones to come up with a top-20. It was the latter years – right up until 2012 or 2013 when most of the 719 Jupiter alumni who have made their Major League Baseball debuts were at the event – that would be the most difficult.

But, even if the task was tedious it was also equally gratifying. “When I look through this stuff, it brings back so many memories, whether it was at the fields, after the fields or whatever,” Andy told me. “And I think back on the people who started bringing their teams to our tournaments and they didn’t really know (what to expect).”

Today, everyone who has been involved with this event over the years has a pretty good idea of what to expect. There will be 88 of the finest travel ball teams in the country on hand, and their rosters will be stocked with somewhere in the neighborhood of 1,500 top high school-aged national prospects.

Many prominent MLB front office personnel will be there when the 20th annual PG WWBA World Championship begins its five-day run on Thursday, along with hundreds of pro scouts and college coaches, all motoring around the Roger Dean Complex (Cardinals, Marlins spring training) in Jupiter on an equal number of golf carts. There will be surprises, of course – there always are – but they will be the good kind of surprises, not the bad.

Perfect Game Founder & President Jerry Ford, with vice presidents Andy Ford, Jason Gerst and Tyson Kimm, will be there, too, just like they were at the inaugural “Jupiter” which was held in Fort Myers, Fla., in October 1999.

Staffing at the WWBA World Championship has also grown, as you might expect. The only full-time staff on hand at the inaugural event in 1999 was just those four “founding fathers” in Jerry and Andy, Jason and Tyson. More than 100 full- and part-timers will be working their tails off this week.

And, oh boy, the stories Jerry, Andy, Jason and Tyson can tell. They’re too numerous to re-tell in this space but the memories are vivid and genuine, and very much heart-felt.

Andy explained to me last week that the driving force behind every PG tournament – including the inaugural WWBA World Championship in 1999 – has been simply to bring all the best players in the country together in one spot so they could be scouted, reported on and ranked; Jupiter is the pinnacle.

The WWBA World Championship’s placement on the calendar as a fall event was also no accident. Jerry Ford, who still is very much a scout at heart and always will be, realized the top prospects were still playing baseball in the fall and an October tournament held in a warm-weather locale was sure to provide an attractive diversion.

“We had the (Iowa) Fall League, and we thought if kids in Iowa and the Midwest are playing fall baseball, they’ve got to be playing fall baseball in other places, too,” Andy said. “We chose Fort Myers (in 1999) because we had been doing the World Showcase there and (Lee County officials) were good to work with.” The event moved to Jupiter the next year.

In those early years, relationships needed to be built within the summer travel ball industry and that meant making a lot of phone calls. According to Andy, there was some initial hesitation on the part of some of the more established organizations because they didn’t do much during the fall 20 years ago; that, of course, has changed dramatically.

But, again, this was all about getting the best kids together to compete against one another so that PG could establish its player database and move forward with ranking the top prospects. In those early years, travel ball organizations mostly just brought together the top teenaged talent from a certain region so they could showcase their talents while trying out for USA Baseball national teams.

“Those first three years of Jupiter – ’99, 2000, 2001 – we really didn’t know much about travel baseball,” Andy explained. “Then we started doing the National Showcase (in 2001), and it (seemed like) every single one of those kids at the National Showcase played on a travel team. You’d see four or five guys from one travel team show up and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out, well, that‘s a good travel team.”

Andy told me he remembered an early conversation he had with East Cobb Baseball owner Guerry Baldwin, who was questioning why he should spend the money required to take a team to the WWBA World Championship; Andy told Baldwin he should talk to his dad.

“Jerry told him he should be there because it’s going to be the best tournament that your kids could ever go to and play against the other best kids in front of all the scouts and college coaches,” Andy related. “And you’re going to try to win and all the scouts and coaches are going to love watching your kids compete for something that matters to them.”

Baldwin was sold and sent in his check; momentum was building. Andy told me that Baldwin and Ron Slusher from the Ohio Warhawks were two of the most prominent guys he’s bounced ideas off of over the years and he continues to do so to this day.

He also mentioned the late Mike Spiers from ABD and Ron Bruno from NorCal Baseball as important early players because they were willing to bring their California-based teams all the way across the country to play at the WWBA World.

“Those guys committing to come to Jupiter from California was a big, big deal,” Andy said. “… A lot of it came down to, how are we going to see all the best players and how are we going to see all the best players playing against each other? That’s really the way that it kind of evolved. … We came up with ideas and asked, ‘How do we see more players?’ The best way to see more players is at (national) tournaments.”

 

… … …


MY FIRST OPPORTUNITY TO FULLY EMBRACE THE JUPITER EXPERIENCE
came in October 2010, which was the 12th annual edition of the event. It had already achieved national acceptance and prominence as the most heavily scouted amateur baseball event in the world by that time and I was, quite frankly, breathlessly amazed by the spectacle that unfolded before my eyes.

I wrote a lot of stories at that first event after speaking with players, coaches, parents, scouts and college recruiters. The conversations were simultaneously interesting, informative and enlightening, especially for a middle-aged guy who was just beginning to understand what the PG WWBA World Championship – and travel baseball, for that matter – was all about.

In talking with scouts, I got this comment from Roy Clark, who was then an assistant general manager and vice president of player personnel for the Nationals: “This is just a tremendous tournament, outstanding talent; even West Coast colleges are here,” he told me. “It’s known in the scouting ranks as the No. 1 tournament in amateur baseball.”

I also got this from Matt Hyde, then the Northeast area scout for the Yankees: “We’re here just to see players we already know about and we’ve identified and see them compete against other good players. You hear a name, and to be able to see them down here, it’s obviously easier going from (fields) Blue 4 to Blue 7 than from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania.”

And this comment came from John Mirabelli, then an assistant general manager and vice president of scouting operations for the Indians: “Because of the convenience and the logistics of having so many players in one spot, they put it on a silver platter for the scouting industry. So yeah, you put it all on paper and it’s a pretty good deal.”

I also wrote a short piece re-introducing Brad Clement to the PG community. Brad was joining PG to work on the business development side of the company and today he is Perfect Game’s CEO.

Brad’s son, Jeff Clement – the No. 3 overall pick in the 2005 MLB June Amateur Draft out of Southern Cal – was a Jupiter alum, so Brad had witnessed first-hand the opportunities the event creates for young prospects.

“I think it is immensely important from several different standpoints,” he told me at the time. “From the personal player standpoint, it allows you to compete at a high level against the best players in the country. To play with and against the best players game-in and game-out at showcases like this is immeasurable as far as growth opportunities.

“The exposure that provides in front of the hundreds of professional scouts and college coaches at an event like this pays dividends as well.”

The 2010 championship game between North Carolina’s Dirtbags and Florida’s Chet Lemon’s Juice was a competitive affair that went into extra innings. It was getting late and Juice was running out of pitching so after some discussion it was decided that co-champions would be named; it is still the only time the event has crowned co-champs.

After the championship game was completed and I was back at my hotel room, I wrote a short opinion piece that attempted to convey my feeling about what I had witnessed over the previous five days. It read, in part:

“It’s quite an event. Eighty-five baseball teams stocked with the best high school talent the nation has to offer, playing more than 200 games over five days on a myriad of beautifully maintained fields at the Roger Dean Sports Complex. It’s exhilarating and mind-numbing all at once.

“At one point over the last five days, someone compared the event to a big circus coming to town, and in a way, I could understand the analogy. But it is too down-to-the-detail to be accurately compared to a circus. It’s more like a well-orchestrated invasion.”

I would pound out dozens of other stories from my Jupiter visits over the next seven years leading up to this year’s tournament, which will be my ninth. One that I remember fondly was written during my second trip, in 2011.

The Cardinals Scout Team/FTB Mizuno entered with a roster loaded with top prospects (all 28 rostered players were committed to D-I schools) including current Houston Astros third baseman Alex Bregman (LSU).

But my story focused on what was labeled the “PG All-American Outfield” which featured Albert Almora, David Dahl and Jesse Winker. All three are in the big leagues now: Almora debuted with the Cubs in June 2016, Dahl with the Rockies in July 2016 and Winker with the Reds in April 2017. The 2011 event marked the third straight year Winker had been in Jupiter.

“All of the games at this event are sweet to be a part of, and then as soon as it gets into the playoffs that’s when you really want to win. Every time you come here you want to come in and win a ring,” he told me at the time. “Me, Dahl and Albert have played together with USA Baseball and we’re a close-knit outfield. This will be our fourth week playing together in the (same) outfield and this is going to be lot of fun.”

There was a similar occurrence the following year (2012) when PG All-Americans John Paul Crawford, Christopher Rivera and Dominic Smith played the infield for Yak Baseball West-GBG. Crawford and Smith have made their big-league debuts with the Mets and Phillies, respectively; Rivera is a minor-leaguer in the Braves’ system.

"I'm glad to be down here playing amongst the top talent, and I'm glad that I was invited down here to play," Smith told me six years ago. "It's a great experience with hundreds of scouts out here, and it's a great weekend. It's great for the people to come out here and watch some of the top talent that will be playing in the big leagues one day.”


… … …


WITH ALL THE OUTSTANDING PROSPECTS THAT HAVE WALKED
out onto the fields at the Roger Dean Complex over the past 18 years (remember, the first “Jupiter” was held in Fort Myers) it’s easy for names and the faces to blend together. But everyone who was there, it seems, remembers Mike Trout.

Trout, the L.A. Angels’ two-time American League MVP and seven-time all-star, played for New Jersey-based Tri-State Arsenal teams in Jupiter in both 2007 and 2008. I had a chance to speak with Trout in Tempe, Ariz., during MLB spring training in 2013 and a smile crossed his face when I asked him about Jupiter.

“Those were great experiences,” he told me. “Just to get out of Jersey and see the competition from all across the country and to compete against other players that were doing the same things you were trying to do: get to the professional level. It was just good to get that exposure.”

And that, Andy Ford told me, is what this event has been all about since day-one.

“It’s not about doing good or bad, because in baseball you’re going to do bad more than you do good,” he said. “(The scouts) want to see Mike Trout facing the best pitching. … They want to see guys fail, because let’s face it, how many times did Bryce Harper or Mike Trout or Kris Bryant or Francisco Lindor fail in high school? How many times did they go 0-for-4 in a high school game and strike out three times? Never? … Jupiter, again, is really just about the best players playing against the other best players.”

Early on, Andy told me, it was also an extension of what Jerry was doing with Iowa kids in the PG Fall Leagues, only on a much grander scale. “We just thought there was a void, but we really didn’t even know. We just all believed it was something that was going to be really cool for everybody.”

The PG WWBA World Championship was Perfect Game’s genesis. As the Jupiter event began to take root in the early 2000s, PG became a big-time player in amateur baseball. The company started organizing more showcases and summer tournaments, including the prominent PG WWBA National Championships held in the Atlanta area.

In the beginning, Jerry and Andy Ford, Jason Gerst and Tyson Kimm started the Jupiter event with the belief that it could be held at a great facility with great teams and great players. It would attract a lot of high-level scouts and college coaches/recruiters and it would be something that would provide the players’ parents with a great experience, as well. That was the belief 20 years ago and it remains the belief today.

“(I believe) it’s the greatest thing in amateur baseball; there’s nothing that’s comparable,” Andy said. “Playing for USA Baseball is an unbelievable honor and a kid that has a chance to do it should definitely do it. Going to the East Coast Pro and the Area Code Games is going to be beneficial to you as an individual, but no team has ever won Jupiter because of one guy.”

Any 20-year anniversary provides an ideal moment for reflection. It’s a time to look back on the hard lessons learned with few or no regrets while also looking forward to the next 20 years and beyond.

Despite feeling slightly overwhelmed while trying to identify the top 20 prospects from the previous 19 “Jupiters” Andy Ford was enjoying his trip back in time. It was providing the perfect perspective.

“Jupiter back then and Jupiter today shocks us the same way every time we go down there,” he concluded. “Seeing all those golf carts, that won’t ever get old. Seeing people rush from (fields) Blue 5 to Red 1 and do whatever, that will never get old.” The entire experience, it seems, will, in fact, never get old.



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