MARIETTA, Ga. - Clear the track everyone. The East Cobb Express is leaving the station.
Incredibly perhaps, "Express" isn't one of the nicknames of any of the 42 East Cobb Baseball-affiliated teams that will suit up the rest of this week and into the weekend for the third annual running of the 17u/18u, 16u and 14u/15 Perfect Game-East Cobb Invitational tournaments.
You've got Angels and Astros, Tigers and Titans, Patriots and Pride and Rangers and Renegades, but, so far anyway, no Express. That's the moniker that can be used to describe the entire organization.
All told, 184 teams with hundreds of hopeful prospects have invaded the northwest Atlanta suburbs to play in one of the three invitational tournaments, with a lot of the games being played here at the East Cobb Baseball Complex. East Cobb-affiliated teams make up about 23 percent of that total and probably about an equal percentage of the teams that will seriously contend for one of the three championships to be claimed on Sunday.
The top contender? That could very easily be the East Cobb Braves 17u, another talented squad coached by Kevin Baldwin that also happens to be the 17u/18u PG-EC Invitational defending champion. In fact, it was an ECB clean sweep here last year, with the East Cobb Astros 15u winning the 16u PG-EC Invitational and the East Cobb Longhorns winning the 14u/15u PG-EC Invite.
But it is, in popular parlance, a new year.
"It was kind of rough getting our season going," Baldwin said before the Braves 17u played its tournament opener against the Jack City Dodgers at the ECB Complex. "We had a bunch of people that played deep into their high school playoffs so we kind of started off short-handed, and we're just now winding into a team and trying to get everybody together. So it's kind of exciting just seeing where we're at."
Baldwin said the team has been playing for the past three weeks, but not with everyone on the roster necessarily in uniform. "We're still not all together and it will probably be mid-June before we get all that going, but we're eager to get started this week and see what happens," he said.
Everyone can just about guess what will happen. The Braves 17u history exudes success and accomplishment, most recently evidenced by the PG WWBA 18u National Championship and the 18u PG BCS Finals the squad won last year. They were the fifth WWBA titles and fourth BCS Finals championships won by the Braves 17u since 2003.
In the EC Braves 17u's situation, it does seem the winning tradition is passed down with each new group that puts on the uniform.
"If you do have success in the past, good players will want to be on your team, and it makes it easier if you have good players," Baldwin said. "But that doesn't always make it a great team."
A quick glance at the Braves 17u roster submitted for this week's 17u/18u PG-EC Invitational included some of the top 2013 prospects in the country, and also included several 2012s that were members of the team last year.
One of them, 2011 Perfect Game All-American Duane Underwood, could certainly be excused for his absence on Wednesday. The day before, Underwood was taken by the Chicago Cubs in the second round of the MLB First-Year Player Draft, and he wasn't alone. Fifteen players that were on 17u/18u PG-EC Invite rosters Wednesday weren't present because they had been drafted at some point over the last three days.
"I love to see the kids get their due compliments and the recognition they deserve for their hard work and what they've done, and it's kind of the icing on the cake with the Major League draft," Baldwin said.
The stars of this year's team are young prospects who may very well be keeping an eye on the draft next June. Four of those 2013s have already committed to NCAA Division I schools, including right-hander/first baseman Chris Oakley from Egg Harbor Township, N.J., who is the nation's No. 23-ranked prospect (No. 1 in New Jersey) and has committed to North Carolina.
The others are No. 34 nationally ranked outfielder Josh Hart and 115th ranked outfielder/right-hander Keenan Innis, both Georgia Tech commits, and catcher/right-hander Jarrett Freeland, a Georgia commit. Third baseman/right-hander Travis Demeritte is the nation's No. 8-ranked prospect in the class of 2013 but hasn't committed to a school yet.
"It's nice to have great players, but great players don't make a great team," Baldwin said. "That's kind of the challenge that me and my assistant coaches go through every summer, especially at the beginning, is just trying to make them realize that they have to play like a team. You can't go on just talent alone."
The East Cobb Braves 17u won their pool-play opener against the Jack City Dodgers, 7-0, and will continue the defense of their championship Thursday afternoon in a second pool-play game against the Hoover Baseball Club.
It's a new season in the northwest Atlanta suburbs, and the East Cobb Express is ready to start winning championships.
"We're excited. A new summer always brings new challenges," Baldwin said. "We're just excited to see what happens."