Tournaments : : Story
Friday, September 10, 2010

E Cobb rises to top of travel programs

Jeff Dahn        
In an April 29th Sports Illustrated piece detailing the rapid rise of the Atlanta Braves' remarkable rookie Jason Heyward, author and sportswriter Tom Verducci described East Cobb Baseball as follows:

"What Silicon Valley is to computer chips, East Cobb is to youth baseball: the heart of the sport's research and development."

That's a lofty comparison coming from a well-respected sports journalist, and it certainly seems appropriate. Over the last 25 years, ECB founder and president Guerry Baldwin has built what is widely recognized as the premier youth baseball program in the country, one that helps groom young players, like Heyward when he was a teenager, into the next generation of college and professional stars.

From a one-team operation in 1985 - a team consisting of Marietta, Ga., little leaguers - East Cobb Baseball this summer put 81 teams on the field comprised of 8-year-olds up to 18-year olds.

ECB teams have won 155 national championships since 1985, including nine this season alone: 9U Grand Slam World Series; 14U USSSA Elite Nationals; 14U Perfect Game WWBA Nationals; 15U CABA World Series; 16U Southern Wood Bat World Series; 16U CABA World Series; 17U Perfect Game BCS Nationals; 18U Perfect Game BCS Nationals; and 18U Sandlott World.

The 18U East Cobb Yankees also qualified for the Connie Mack World Series.

Winning the PG WWBA 14U Nationals at its own East Cobb Baseball Complex was special for the East Cobb Astros. Coach Dave Roberts and the Astros beat the defending national champions Dulin Dodgers, 9-4, in the championship game June 28, avenging a loss to the Dodgers in 2009 championship game. Roberts and the Astros won back-to-back titles in 2007-08.

Astros right-hander C.J. Avrard (2014, Jesuit HS, La.) allowed two runs on four hits with 10 strikeouts over the five-day tournament, and was named Most Valuable Pitcher.

Baldwin started all this on the premise of pairing standout players with other standout players, instead of the hodge-podge of talent levels that most local pony league teams feature.

"East Cobb is a lot of ideas about what could improve summer amateur baseball, if you will, so it would be good for all kids," Baldwin told Perfect Game. "In particular, I suppose, the better players ... because I never thought really, really talented players playing against players - players who were there for the right reasons ... and they enjoyed it for the most part when they were allowed to compete against the really good players - but the really good players didn't get any better.

"We started trying to find avenues for our players to play the higher level of competition more often they were in summer pony leagues or whatever the leagues happened to be back then," he said. "Some of the ideas worked, some weren't so good. We sort of took the good ones and moved forward and got rid of the bad ones, and progressed from there."

Those good ideas worked, and really blossomed when a wealthy benefactor donated enough money for Baldwin to build the East Cobb Baseball Complex just outside of Marietta. It is a beautiful, eight-field facility that immediately became a magnet drawing the best players to Marietta from all across Georgia and the Southeast.

Baldwin said ECB's elite 18U and 17U teams may go out and actively recruit players, but it's mostly confined to a region with Atlanta as the hub.

"Do we go coast-to-coast trying to recruit players? No. And as long as I'm running the organization that's not going to happen," Baldwin said. "I'm a big believer that baseball is a team game and we preach that here. So if you're going to come here and play on a team from somewhere else, then you've got to be willing to be here and play on that team through the summer. We do not have people who play here some events, and play somewhere else some events. We just won't allow that."

In fact, it was Baldwin's belief that many of the top players from the Atlanta area were being overlooked by colleges and pro teams that drove him to establish East Cobb Baseball in the first place.

"One of the other things that always kind of boggled my mind is why it was so difficult for the talented players in the greater Atlanta metropolitan area to get recognized by not just college baseball in particular professional baseball," he said. "It seemed to be like nobody thought there were never any good players in the area, and there were. There were some really, really good players who had they come through today, they would probably be pretty high picks or definitely D-I players. It's just that nobody knew too much about them."

East Cobb Baseball conducts its operations in a unique way. Baldwin explained that all of East Cobb's teams are basically "independent contrators" and it is the coaches and parents of the players on those teams who make the decisions on budgetary matters, such as how much will be spent on tournaments, how many games will be played, securing umpires and buying uniforms, and organizing fund-raising events.

Parents and volunteers are essential to ECB's operation.

"There is absolutley no way that it could be done without them," Baldwin said.

Teams are constructed based on talent level and each age-group has at least one elite team. But the players with slightly lesser skill levels aren't tossed to the curb, and that's help contribute to ECB's phonemenal growth.

"I think that it's probably a little bit of a surprise that it has grown to the level that it is, but it is, I think, what we set out to do," Baldwin said. "What we do now that makes it a little bit different, is we try to provide baseball for all the kids we can possibly handle at this complex. It doesn't really reflect on if it's a really, really talented player or someone trying to have fun playing baseball.

"We do all kinds now, and that's kind of gratifying because I think all kids should have the opportunity to play if they want to, and play at the level they can play at."

Perfect Game USA utilizes the East Cobb Baseball Complex for many of its tournaments and showcases throughout the year, including all of its WWBA national events. It is probably not a coincidence that Perfect Game and East Cobb Baseball have experienced parallel growth.

"Over the years, we've really had a great relationship," Baldwin said. "Obviously, we've had a lot of events here and we're really happy with that. It certainly has worked good for every player in this program to be able to play in such prestigious events, and they're right here. The money end of it is a little better. It's not quite as expensive as going somewhere else to do it.

"It's a real good relationship, and I've certainly felt the Ford family has done an incredibly remarkable job with their energy to get it from where it was a long, long time ago to where it is now. They've done a lot of right things."

It is at Perfect Game tournaments and showcases and other events at the East Coast Baseball Complex where many of tomorrow's Major League stars first get noticed by college coaches and scouts. ECB has produced more than 150 professional players and hundreds more have received college scholarships.

Heyward isn't the only ECB alum making noise in the big leagues. Marlon Byrd, Michah Owings, Gordon Beckham, Matt Capps, Jeff Francoeur, Brian McCann and Dexter Fowler were all members of the ECB teams as youngsters.

The vast majoriy of ECB players go onto college, which is the organization's intent in the first place.

"We always talk about college first because I think we all know how difficult it is to make it as a professional baseball player," Baldwin said. "The success rate is very low. The rate of first-rounders that make it is reasonably low considering how much money they give them from time-to-time.

"We try to lead parents to college first, and if it's obvious they're going to high-drafted we try to help them with it. What I tell most of the parents here, if your son is going to be offered life-altering money, you probably should take it. But baseball is a business and certainly can be delayed three or four years, and they'll have a college degree if it doesn't work."

East Cobb Baseball had three players at the 2010 Aflac All-Star Classic in San Diego Aug. 15: left-hander Daniel Norris (East Cobb Yankees), infielder Javier Baez (East Cobb Braves) and right-hander John Maggliozzi (East Cobb Braves, summer; East Cobb Astros, fall). Norris, Perfect Game's top-ranked prospect in the high school class of 2011, was named Baseball America's Pitcher of the Year and received the prestigious Jackie Robinson Award, representative of the Aflac National High School Player of the Year.

That is the kind of player that continues to pass through East Cobb Baseball, and the kind of player college coaches, pro scouts and baseball fans will see when East Cobb Baseball teams attend the PG WWBA World Tournament in Jupiter, Fla., Oct. 21-25.

It all fits in with those original ideas, the orginal blueprint to keep baseball fun while helping players reach their full potential.

"We try to keep two major things upfront," Baldwin said. "Baseball is a game and you should have fun with the game and hopefully at the end of your summer season you will be a better player. That would reflect in high school baseball the next year or whatever level that kid can attain."
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