GOODYEAR, Ariz. – Canes Baseball, one of the nation’s most preeminent travel ball organizations, rose to prominence from its roots in Virginia, made a name for itself in the Perfect Game destination city of Jupiter, Fla., and hasn’t looked back for nearly a decade now.
It was only a matter of time before its reach extended west of the Rockies and Canes Baseball West is certainly making its presence known this holiday weekend at the PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic. Ten teams, in fact, with names like Canes West, Canes Arizona and Canes SoCal are part of the 14u, 15u, 16u and 17u tournaments, looking to leave their prominent footprints in the desert sand.
Amongst that group, the Murrieta, Calif.-based Canes West 2023 – playing in the 16u WMDC – managed to exert itself by mid-afternoon on Sunday when they won their third straight pool play game, clinched a pool championship and advanced to Monday morning’s bracket play.
“Our initial message was that we’re just going to come out and we’re going to have as much fun as we can and we’re going to win every pitch,” Canes West 2023 head coach Bobby Patton told PG on Sunday, speaking from the Cleveland Indians’ side of the Goodyear Ballpark Sports Complex. “When we do that and we take care of our job, little things like winning a ballgame takes care of itself. That’s it.”
Winning a ballgame at a tournament the caliber of the PG WWBA West Memorial Day Classic isn’t necessarily a “little thing” but Patton’s point is well-taken. It’s usually the teams that are disciplined, pay attention to detail and inject equal doses of fun and focus into their play that are left standing when the playoffs roll around.
And Memorial Day 2021 here in the west Phoenix suburbs will not be lacking for drama with nearly three dozen playoff games – a number that includes championship games in all six age-divisions – being played between 8 a.m. and 7 p.m. on both the Indians and Reds sides of the Goodyear complex. The Canes West 2023 will be there front and center for an 8 a.m. 16u quarterfinal.
“I’d say it’s definitely more chill than being on a team that’s super serious, per se; we have fun while we’re playing,” the Canes top 2023 right-hander/first baseman Grant Smith told PG on Sunday. “It’s all good and we’re winning games so I’d say it’s a pretty good environment being around (my teammates). I just met a lot of them but it feels like I’ve known them forever.”
The Canes West ‘23s won their three pool-play games by a combined count of 23-8, and that included a 4-2 championship-clinching victory over CBA 808AZ Sunday afternoon. Dillon Roberts, a 2023 right-hander/corner-infielder out of Cave Creek, Ariz., played a key role in the victory with a triple, a single and a run scored while also throwing four innings of one-hit, shutout ball; he struck out nine and walked eight.
Other key contributors – not just on Sunday but on Friday and Saturday, as well – included (all 2023s) Smith, Owen Wade and Quinn Carrier, all from Phoenix; Julian Terrazas from Holly, Colo.; Michael Macias out of Yucaipa, Calif.; Kai Hopfel from Corona, Calif; and Myles Naylor, a Texas Tech commit ranked No. 152 nationally out of Mississauga, Ontario.
Smith and Wade, it should be noted, both attend Phoenix Pinnacle High School where they also happen to be classmates and high school teammates with two-sport top prospect Duce Robinson; Robinson is playing at the 17u and 18u WMDC with the Phoenix-based 3D Gold program.
“I love playing here,” Wade said on Sunday. “It’s different than the high school, it’s just more ‘chill’ and not as much pressure, I guess...It’s more relaxed playing around these guys; it’s more relaxed and it’s easier to play.”
Patton sure seemed to go out of his way to make sure the players were relaxed during Sunday afternoon’s game, helping them forget about the intense 100-degree heat by shooting video on his phone before the team took the field in the top of the first; he even kept things loose during an animated mound visit in the second, turning stress into smiles.
Coming in as the No. 37-ranked overall national prospect from the class of 2023 makes the uncommitted Smith the highest ranked ’23 at this weekend’s WWBA WMDC regardless of age division. The rankings certainly are not something Smith is obsessed with but he’s also not totally ignorant of their significance. And he is not afraid to use them as motivation.
“I don’t really pay that much attention to it; I try not to,” he said Sunday. “But sometimes, when I’m on the mound especially, I know what I can do and I just try to improve on myself so I’d say I’d definitely pay attention to that a little bit.”
The sky-high ranking isn’t a talking point in the dugout – everyone on this roster is after the same thing, and that’s all that matters. Smith said he had a “pretty rough” high school season and just getting back out on the field after a brief break is working wonders in his mental approach.
“Just being around a bunch of people who are obviously really good at the sport challenges you, so I’d say this is a pretty good environment,” he said.
Like Smith, this is the first tournament Wade played with the Canes, gladly excepting an invitation for the weekend. He is already on the Canes West 2023 roster for at least one more event – the WWBA 16u West National Championship – scheduled for here in July.
“It’s awesome playing for the Canes,” he said. “That’s just because we’re good – we’re really good [and] we’ve had great chemistry so far. This is only my third game with them and I met most of these guys just for the first time on Friday and I think playing with them makes me better. It’s better kids and you always want to be as good or better than all the other kids you play with.”
Patton told PG that the Canes’ staff spent time during the high school season this spring assembling a roster stocked with “all the right guys” (his words), sophomores heading into their junior years that were “great young men first and great ballplayers second.”
Once that’s achieved and you have a group that shares the same values and sets the same goals, all those little things begin taking care of themselves. That’s pretty much what Canes Baseball founder Jeff Petty has always believed in and he’s certainly made it work with his age-group Canes National teams through the years.
“It represents the brand, it represents more than baseball,” Patton said of wearing the word “Canes” across the front of a uniform. “It represents the character of the young men and that’s first and foremost. If they’re great people they can become great ballplayers. If they’re a great ballplayer, that doesn’t mean they’re going to be a great person and have a great future.”
The director of operations at Canes Baseball West is Allan Dykstra, whose baseball history has come full circle, at least in regard to his association with Perfect Game.
A corner infielder out of Poway, Calif., Dykstra participated in a handful of PG events in 2003-04 including appearances at the 2003 PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla., with the ABD Bulldogs; he was also at the 2004 PG WWBA National Championship in Marietta, Ga., with the South Florida Stars.
After high school, Dykstra enjoyed a stellar career at Wake Forest University in the powerhouse ACC and was eventually a first round pick of the Padres in the 2008 MLB June Amateur Draft; he played 13 big league games for the Tampa Bay Rays in 2015. In other words, Dykstra has experienced every level of baseball these young prospects hope to experience themselves one day.
Grant Smith said he’s had the opportunity to speak with Dykstra a few times since he became involved with the Canes West and even received some hitting tips from him on Saturday, which was the first time the two met in person.
“I actually had no idea but I think it’s pretty cool that he was in the same spot as we all are in right now,” Smith said. “And now he’s coaching us. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Dykstra couldn’t be reached for comment Sunday afternoon but not everyone with the Canes West 2023 was ignorant of his PG past: “Yeah, we give him a hard time about his PG picture all the time,” Patton said with a laugh. “He looks like a fungo with red hair.”
Patton and Dykstra were both on hand when they had their first conversation with this team late last week and according to Patton it went something like this:
'We want to get better with every game we play this weekend. We’ll use the first game to learn some things, maybe even get exposed a little bit in some areas and make adjustments as needed in the next two pool-play games. The goal is to have better at-bats at the end of the tournament then we had at the beginning because those lessons were ultimately learned.'
Patton believes that the collective personality of this team lends itself to making those words work. It’s a hard-working group that is also very loose and loves to have fun out on the field, which is really what this is all about, after all. Everyone of these guys was hand-picked based on their character and work ethic. These are the questions that were asked, in Patton’s retelling:
“Can you take care of the little things? Are you trying to be the best player you can be every single day? Are you getting your extra work in? Are you taking care of your grades? Are you opening doors for ladies when you walk into the gas station? It’s all the little things and I think we’ve got the right group.”
It was announced late Sunday that the Canes Arizona 2023 Gold had earned the No. 1 seed in the 16u WMDC playoffs while the Canes West 2023 earned the No. 4 seed. That puts them on the opposite sides of the bracket in the quarterfinal round but very much on a collision course in the semifinals. Canes versus Canes? It’s a wait-and-see proposition.
“I’d say now that we’ve just got to keep doing what we’ve been doing,” the Canes West ’23 Smith said. “We’ve got to keep hitting the ball, keep playing defense and then I think we could make it all the way to the end of the tournament. We’ve been doing a pretty good job of that so far.”