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Tournaments | Story | 11/8/2018

Young Dodgers just dandy in '18

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Blaze Jordan (Perfect Game)

A strange thing happened to the Dulins Dodgers on their way to Jupiter, Fla., late last month: They seemed to have discovered the fountain of youth.

Organization founder/general manager/manager/instructor Tim Dulin assembled an official 20-man roster for the blockbuster Perfect Game WWBA World Championship that was comprised of 15 high school juniors and sophomores and complemented with five seniors.

Some may have thought Dulin crazy for taking such a young team to an event that is widely viewed as a golden opportunity for draft-eligible seniors to showcase their talents in front of more than 1,000 MLB scouts and front office personnel. Yeah, crazy like a fox, maybe.

First off, remember that the underclass Canes Prospects took home the title at the 2017 PG WWBA World Championship just two years after underclass Team EvoShield finished as runner-up.

And, secondly, consider that Dulin was carrying a roster that featured 10 top class of 2020 and 2021 prospects that helped the Dulins Dodgers 15u Prime win the championship at the 15u PG World Series and reach the playoffs at the 15u WWBA National Championship. The Prime finished the summer with a 21-6-1 overall record.

Most of the players that occupy spots on that roster have been playing together in the Dodgers program since they were 12 years old. Dulin senses the feeling of familiarity the players have with one another is a key contributor to the success they’ve enjoyed. And it helps that most live in relatively close proximity to one another, being raised in cities and towns in Tennessee, Mississippi and Alabama.

“They all get along; they all kind of understand what their roles have been,” Dulin told PG during a telephone conversation late last week. “The fun part is watching them all mature as young men and baseball players. The game gets faster but yet they’ve got to figure out ways to slow it down.”

The Dulins Dodgers 15u Prime were able to slow the game down enough to win 80 percent of their PG WWBA tournament games this summer and land at No. 1 in the PG Summer National 15u Travel Team Rankings.

Its roster features six class of 2021 prospects ranked in the top-112 nationally, including the prodigious Blaze Jordan, a slugging corner-infielder from Southaven, Miss., who is No. 1-ranked in his class and has committed to Mississippi State.

Jordan, who turns 16 in December, is already well-known for his 400-foot home runs and gained fame in 2017 when he hit at least one home run at 17u, 16u, 15u and 14u events – including at the PG WWBA World Championship – as a 14-year-old.

Other top 2021s that were rostered with both the 15u PGWS championship team and the team that was in Jupiter included right-hander Nick Bitsko (No. 4-ranked, Virginia commit), third baseman Slate Alford (No. 60, Auburn), second baseman Jeffrey Ince (No. 112, Mississippi State), left-hander William "Pico" Kohn (No. 277, Mississippi State) and left-hander Jaxon Weber (No. 293, TCU). 2020 shortstop Lane Forsythe (No. 247, Mississippi State) was the top prospect from his class to play on both teams.

Other highly regarded 2021s like left-hander Ryan Ginther (No. 44, Vanderbilt) and Gerald (Cross) Jumper (No. 187, Tennessee) were key contributors on the 15u PGWS squad.

2021 right-hander/third baseman/catcher David Jeon (No. 341) was named the Most Valuable Player at the 15u PGWS. He was joined on the all-tournament team by Jordan, Weber, 2021 Texas right-hander Rawley Hector (No. 12, Texas A&M) and four others.

The week before the WWBA World, Dulin took pretty much the same team to the Ways to Play Powered by MLB & PG event in Emerson, Ga. Jordan, Kohn, Forsythe, Alford and 2019s Terris Meeks (top-500) and Andrew Romanoli (t-500) were named all-tournament at the WTP, and Kohn and Weber were all-tournament in Jupiter.

They’re all very talented young guys who will go on to play at the collegiate and possibly even the professional level one day. They also know the lay of the land and realize that is Jordan – the PG 14u Player of the Year in 2017 – who stands as the axis around which the Dodgers 15u Prime revolved this summer.

It’s an arrangement that suits everyone just fine. The other players feed off the energy and the leadership qualities Jordan brings to the field every day, and the coaches make sure they all understand who they are as a player and not even attempting to “keep up with Blaze Jordan.”

“There’s never really been animosity or jealousy amongst any of our players,” Dulin said. “Blaze is such a great kid and a quiet leader and as much of a superstar and a talent that he is, he never big-leagues his teammates or the opponent. That speaks volumes in the sense that our players, although they appreciate and look up to (Blaze), in some instances they treat him just like another guy and that’s the way he wants to be treated.”

Dulin brought former Chicago White Sox manager Terry Bevington into the program this summer to work with his young players, and it proved to be a great move. He felt like the players needed to hear another voice other than his own, and who better to provide it than someone who managed in the major leagues.

“There’s not a lot of rah-rah stuff going on, it’s basically just show up on time, play the game the right way and ask questions and try to learn,” Dulin said. “They adapted to that very well.”

… … …

THE DULINS DODGERS ORGANIZATION HAS EXPANDED FROM ITS BASE of operations in the Memphis area, where it fields 20 teams, to the Dallas area, where it has another 20 teams. As might be expected, the Dodgers 15u Prime weren’t the only team in the program to enjoy championship-level success in 2018.

The Dulin Dodgers-Wright were also a top-ranked team at the end of the summer, sitting in the No. 1 slot in PG’s 14u Travel Team National Rankings. They won the 14u PG World Series – the 15u team won that event in 2017 – and were runners-up at the 14u WWBA National Championship.

It’s a group that has also been playing together since they were 12-year-olds. Its roster is built around top 2021s and 2022s mostly from Tennessee, Alabama and Mississippi, and the team compiled a 22-2-1 record at PG tournaments this past summer.

Five Dodgers-Wright players were named all-tournament at the 14u PGWS, including 2021 shortstop Jonah Sutton, the event’s Most Valuable Player. Seven were on the all-tournament team at the 14u WWBA National Championship, a number that included 2021 right-hander Trent Hodgdon, the Most Valuable Pitcher; Hodgdon was also all-tournament at the 15u PGWS. Shortstop Cooper Clapp (No. 83) is the most highly ranked 2022 on the roster.

The team is managed by Jeff Wright, who Dulin praises for providing great leadership inside the 14u group. Dulin, who spent seven seasons (1985-91) in the Orioles’ minor league system, noted that he once played for manager Johnny Oates, and what he remembers most about Oates was that he genuinely cared about the player as a person.

“I’m a firm believer that if your coach or manager can convince his players that he genuinely cares about them as a person, then those players are going to run through walls for you,” Dulin said, “and Jeff genuinely cares about all of his players.”

The Dodgers’ coaches enter their 14u, 15u and 16u players into as many older age-group events as possible, and the roster in Jupiter was evidence of that. The summer can turn into an eight-week grind for these teenagers but they’re able to thrive simply through their love of the game.

Dulin tells his players that they’re not going to fool the college recruiters and pro scouts that show up to watch them perform. The adults are there to evaluate the talent that’s put before them and they will be quick to recognize a strong work ethic even above the more obvious skill level. Dulin feels like the players he had playing at the 14u and 15u levels this summer have a pretty good idea of what they have to do.

“I love those two age groups because they’re still very eager to learn,” Dulin said. “They’ve got a lot of things they’re going through at those ages … (but) they’re all about learning and understanding more about the game.”

… … …

THE PG WWBA WORLD CHAMPIONSHIP, HELD ANNUALLY AT THE Cardinals’ and Marlins’ Grapefruit League spring training complex in Jupiter, celebrated its 20th birthday late last month, and Tim Dulin has taken a team to the event since the earliest days.

Through the years, he said, he’s never had the intent of putting together a team with a “win at all costs” mentality. The Dulins Dodgers program has won and continues to win its share of PG tournament national championships and taking home a trophy from Jupiter just isn’t the highest priority.

Dulin explained that he and his staff spend a lot of time identifying the players and their families that will be a right fit for the organization. Once the respective rosters are assembled, the staff spends even more time trying to help those young players develop their skill sets to a level that will give them the opportunity to one day play at the collegiate or even professional level.

When it came to putting together the Dulin Dodgers’ roster for this year’s PG WWBA World, Dulin did so with his “development first” philosophy in mind. He knows how unique the Jupiter experience is – “There’s nothing else like it,” he said – and figured the sooner he can get his young players down there they’ll be all the better for it by the time they’re seniors.

“I started it with a couple of guys years ago and then I took Blaze at 13 years old (in 2016),” he said. “And not because we needed a story (but because) it was the best thing to do for Blaze, just to get him in that arena.”

Dulin recalled that he batted Jordan 10th in the first pool-play game, and the youngster squared-up a pitch so nicely that Dulin moved him up to fifth in the order for the second game. Jordan returned as a 14-year-old in 2017 and earned all-tournament recognition after going 5-for-11 (.455) with a double, home run and two RBI.

“That just further instilled in me that I need to keep doing this,” Dulin said, speaking about bringing younger players to the WWBA World. “Now, next year we’ll be a year older and we’ll add some more guys to it and hopefully continue to compete. But ultimately for me, especially at that event, it’s about getting our guys in front of the scouts as soon as we can.”

It's part of the Dulins Dodgers legacy. Sixteen players that once wore Dulins Dodgers’ uniforms went on to play in the major leagues, a number that includes active players like Mookie Betts and Drew Pomeranz from the World Champion Red Sox, the Giants’ Matt Cain, the Angels’ Zack Cozart and the Twins’ Logan Forsythe.

“I talk with Mookie three or four times a week, and the fun part about it is that we’ve created such a good friendship,” Dulin said about the American League MVP finalist Betts. “That ‘loyalty’ word today is kind of pushed in the back of the dictionary for most people.

“For me the most gratifying thing is to be able see kids come through our program and have the success they’re having and think that at some point I had a little bit of an impact on those kids,” he added. “That’s the end-goal.”

The Dodgers finished 1-2-1 in Jupiter last month and were outscored in their three pool-play games by a combined 15-8. The showing was good enough for a second-place finish in the final pool standings and it turned out to be a valuable experience for everyone involved, just like Dulin had hoped.

At the end of each season, he asks his current collection of parents to conduct a thorough evaluation, and ask themselves, one, “Did my son get better?” and, two, “Did we have a good time?” If the answer to those two questions is “Yes” the parties will keep moving forward; if the answers are “No” then a change of direction will most likely take place.

“Obviously, we have to do the same (evaluation) as a staff,” Dulin said. “We’ve had very little turnover over the years and I think people have kind of entrusted us to have their kids for a number of years. Our goal is to continue to keep those guys in our system.”

And that should bode well for the Dulins Dodgers program heading into the summer of 2019.

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