High School : : General
Monday, March 12, 2012

Northern Exposure

Patrick Ebert        
Photo: Perfect Game

Northwest Regional Preview

Playing in certain parts of the country always provides a new set of challenges. In college baseball the NCAA instituted a uniform start date for teams at the Division I level in an attempt to level the playing field since northern teams have difficulty getting outside or even finding indoor facilities to practice, much less play games during the winter months.

Some high school players across the country are presented with a completely different challenge in that the their entire state doesn't even field a baseball program at the high school level.

States such as Montana and Wyoming are among those that don't field high school baseball teams, making it that much more difficult for players to gain the exposure necessary to play at the college level and/or draw the interest of scouts to be selected in the MLB draft.

Traditionally such states aren't known for producing high level talent, but that hasn't been the case in Montana the past few years.

As the 2011 draft approached, two players from the Northwest emerged that had a real chance to be taken in the early rounds of the draft. One of those, Brandon Nimmo of Cheyenne, was the New York Mets first round pick, becoming the highest drafted player from Wyoming. Another, Ben Roberts of Missoula, Mont. was ranked as the 79th
 best high school player in the nation which led to him being selected in the seventh round by the Arizona Diamondbacks. Roberts and the Diamondbacks did not agree to terms, as Roberts opted to honor his commitment to Washington State where he currently has red-shirted during his first year in college.

This year there are three members of the high school class of 2012, Justin Black (ranked 328th
 nationally), Caleb Frare (385) and Andrew Sopko (491) ranked among Perfect Game's top 500 prospects. For the most part, these players need to take it upon themselves to make sure they are recognized by the scouting and college recruiting communities, as it is rare for those involved in those industries to come to Montana in an attempt to unearth talent.

While American Legion baseball is big in these states, that doesn't always help young players gain exposure, placing an increased importance on traveling either to locations with a warmer climate or to Washington where more scouts are located.

Kids in California have scouts that live there, but I have to travel to get seen,” Justin Black recently said when asked about the obstacles he has to overcome given that he's from Billings, Mont. “I went to a pro day in Seattle for a weekend where all of the Northwest scouts were, and they watched me worked out. It's good in that it pushes me to get better.”

Not only do such players have to travel, but they also have to be creative in the way they work out, pushing themselves harder than most in an attempt to fulfill their dreams.

I'll wake up in the morning at 4:30 to run and do yoga,” Black added of his daily routine. “When I get out (of school) I'll go work out for two hours and then I'll hit for two or three hours. So it drives me, because I want to make it. I want to be one of the people known for baseball in my area. It would be a great honor, and it helps push me further.

Before I started hitting at a facility downtown, I had a cage in my barn. It's not heated, so it would be below zero outside, and we had some space heaters that didn't do anything. I would go hit with my dad and our head coach, and I did that in sub-zero degree temperatures. My coach would say, “If you can hit a ball in sub-zero, you can hit a ball when it's 80 degrees.”

Left-handed pitcher Caleb Frare of Miles City, Mont. has similar experiences trying to get his repetitions to improve his game.

My dad worked for a trucking company and we used to throw in his shop,” Frare said. “It was about 120 feet and me and my friend would go in there and throw.

"The club team I play for put a cage and a mound in an old grocery store. There's a cinder block wall that we can throw against. Our club team works on low throws, so you build up to throwing 300 feet on a line. If you threw too high you're going to break a light.”

Even when players do put in the time and effort to improve as baseball players, they also have some local pressures to overcome. American Legion offers a legitimate opportunity for players to get time on the field, but not always against advanced competition since they don't travel out of the state.

American Legion ball is big here,” Frare added. “However, my coaches when I was about 10 felt that we weren't getting enough reps, so they started this club team.

You have to play out of state a lot. Montana club ball is highly frowned upon, and because of that on our schedule we have no teams from Montana. We play teams from Wyoming, Colorado, Nebraska, North and South Dakota. We got out to Spokane (Wash.) every year. We go down to the College World Series and play a tournament there. We get very few home games and a lot of away games, and none of them are in our state.”

Both Black and Frare as well as Missoula, Montana's Andrew Sopko were teammates as part of the Northwest Scout Team organized by Langley Blaze Head Coach Doug Mathiesen that participated in the 2011 WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla. last October. Black and Frare find themselves playing a lot together at such events, even if their hometowns are 150 miles apart from one another.

Justin Black and I have played on a lot of teams together,” Frare said of his experience in Jupiter. “We don't travel together, but we end up at a lot of the same places.”

I just really enjoyed it,” Frare continued. “I wanted to get down there for the exposure because it's the biggest tournament in the nation as far as scouting goes.

I knew whatever team I had to pitch against that I'd have a good team to pitch against. I pitched really well, as I pitched against the No. 2 team in the nation (the Midland Redskins/Royals Scout Team). That showed really well for me, as the scouts there weren't really from my area, but if they submit their reports saying, “there's this kid from the Northwest or Mountain West region in Montana, we need to get on him,” that really helps me. I just had fun pitching against a really good team.”

Jupiter is the best of the best, so that was pretty big to be able to go, so I was pretty fortunate to get to play with that team,” Black said of his experience playing with the Northwest Scout Team.

That experience has already led to more opportunities for both young players. Both were selected to travel with the Langley Blaze during their annual spring trip to Arizona, although Frare is unable to make the trip. For the second straight year, the Langley Blaze will be playing the Dominican Prospect League team next Monday on March 19 at the Brewers spring training facility in Maryvale, Ariz. This creates yet another opportunity for the players to showcase their abilities in front of a large contingent of professional scouts.

When I was down (in Jupiter) I played pretty well in front of the Head Coach for the Langley Blaze (Doug Mathieson)," Black said of the opportunity to travel to Arizona.  "I hit a home run and a triple in one game that he watched and he was really impressed.  (At the Arizona Fall Classic) I broke the 60 (yard dash) record, and he just really liked the way I played I guess and wanted to give me another shot to go play for him. Hopefully it will further my career in baseball.”

Players such as Justin Black also have to travel to events to get noticed by recruiters if they wish to continue their baseball careers such as fellow Montana native Ben Roberts,  who is currently doing so at the college level at Washington State. Black has committed to play for Nebraska, while Frare has signed with Utah.

I was down in Omaha for the Cornhusker Classic,” Black said of how his decision to commit to Nebraska transpired. “I was killing it, I didn't get out at all. (The Nebraska coaching staff) heard my name buzzing around and the hitting coach came and watched me play and I played really well in front of him. I came back up here and they offered me a scholarship that I couldn't turn down. From everything they told me it was exactly where I wanted to be. I feel it's a really good fit for me.”

And while playing professional baseball is the ultimate goal for so many young players, most of them recognize that playing in college is often a necessary step and overall platform needed to accomplish that goal.

It's been a lot of fun here getting in the swing of college baseball,” Roberts recently said of his transition to playing at the college level. “It's not quite what I'm used to, but it's good stuff."

How Roberts' baseball career path progresses is a good resource for players such as Black and Frare to take note of, as Roberts is one step ahead of them and has gone through similar trials and tribulations as a native of Missoula. Here is a recent account from Roberts making the connection between what he had to do as a high school player that led up to where he is at today as a freshman at Washington State:

I played my summer ball in Montana with my team. Things went pretty well there, and I got drafted by the Diamondbacks, but we didn't quite get things worked out with them. We didn't see eye-to-eye on a deal, so I decided to come here and hopefully I'll come out in a few years and begin my pro career.

Coming out of Montana the talent level isn't too high there. We don't have the higher caliber level pitching that most guys around here do. It was a little bit of an adjustment, and I struggled a little (in the fall), but my coaches have told me that I have come miles and miles since then. I'm working on my swing, seeing some better pitching, and it's going really well this spring. All aspects of my game have been coming along, and my coach is pretty happy with how well and how fast I'm improving. They brought that to my attention and said they were excited for the next couple of years and what I could bring to the team. I was excited to hear that from them.

I think one of the main things is to get in some kind of baseball in the fall. I came over to Washington a lot in the fall to play in front of the scouts, which is where I got noticed. There are no professional or collegiate (scouts/recruiters) that come over to the Montana area, so it's really difficult to get noticed.

I played on the Kansas City Royals Scout Team with Scott Ramsay. That's where Spencer Allen (Washington State recruiting coordinator) found me recruiting, and that's where I got a lot of attention from scouts. That really helped. I also went to a couple of showcases here and there that I got invited to, including yours (the 2011 PG National Pre-Draft) in Iowa that was a big help too.

(Washington State) gave me a scholarship offer, something I was very appreciative of and that meant a lot to me. I felt like I would get more out of going to school. Even if baseball doesn't work out for me, my education will kick in and I'll be able to get a job.

I haven't even been here for a year, and all of my teammates and all of the people here at Washington State are really good. If I have any problems with anything in life, whatever it is, everyone is really open, you can just come in and talk with them. My teammates are really good guys, and now they're going to be life-long friends. I think that's one of the biggest thing so far that has impacted me, the people that I have met and how they've helped me out.

(The experience) is a big thing. Just being around better baseball and knowing and seeing the little things that I may have never done make a really big difference in the long run. The better caliber of baseball is helpful, as I learn just by watching the other guys that have been with the team for three or four years that have already gone through what I am.”

For so many of these players to be successful, not only do they have to be dedicated to the game of baseball, but they also need the support of their parents to gain the experience necessary for them to reach their potential.

My parents provide the most support,” Black said. “They're the ones paying the money for me to travel and to allow me to go to Arizona and Florida. I'm going back to Arizona a week from today with Coach Mathieson and the Langley Blaze. I played on the Seattle Mariners Scout Team this fall, so the scouts (in the area) have seen me play and play well.”

Frare also recognized the support he has received from his family.

I want to thank my dad, because he told me, “I don't care what you're going to be, but you're going to be the best thing you can be. Whether that's a truck driver or a baseball player or an astronaut, you're going to be the best.” That stuck with me for a long time.”

My uncle has given a lot of time to be my pitching coach,” Frare added of the support he receives from his family. “He uses NCAA mechanics, nutrition, mental/emotional, all of that and he's done a very good job educating himself and certifying himself to teach it and help me master what I need to do to get better.”

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