Tournaments : : Story
Sunday, January 20, 2013

14u MLK welcomes Florida's MBA

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Even while Melendez Baseball Academy (MBA) founder and head coach Mervyl Melendez prepared his team to play its final pool-play game at the 14u Perfect Game MLK Championship Sunday morning, he knew that his MBA Prospects had already clinched a berth in the final four and would be playing in Monday's semifinal-round of the tournament.

That fact had absolutely no bearing on the way Melendez approached the Prospects' game against Team CALIFORNIA Baseball on the White Sox side of the Camelback Ranch Complex.

"We go to every event to compete and try to be the best and try to be the last team standing," Melendez said about a half-hour before the first pitch. "But we've got to play every single game, we've got to play every inning and we've got to play hard, so knowing that we've already qualified (for the final four) does not change what we're going to do today.

"We've still got to go out there, we've still got to play baseball ,,, and then we'll prepare for tomorrow," he continued. "We still have today before we get to tomorrow (and) we came here to play baseball, we came here to get better and today is just another step towards that."

The Prospects beat Team CAL, 7-1, to complete a sweep on their way to a pool championship that included wins over the ET Sports Titans (9-1) and the Arizona Blaze 14u (4-3) on Saturday. MBA (3-0) will face NorCal Baseball (3-0) in one semifinal at 9 a.m. Monday at the L.A. Dodgers' Field 4 at the Camelback Complex.

The 14u PG MLK Championship boasted a 16-team field with 15 of those squads from either Arizona or California. And then there is the MLB Prospects, a team Melendez formed three years ago when he also opened the Melendez Baseball Academy in the Daytona Beach, Fla., area.

The Prospects are the only Florida-based team that played in any of the three PG MLK Championships (14u, 16, 18u) this weekend, but Melendez felt it was essential his squad of eighth- and ninth-graders made the long trip to the desert.

"First and foremost, Perfect Game is the premier organization in youth baseball," he said. "It is what everyone looks at as the place to be and the place to play, so we want our kids to be part of Perfect Game. Bottom line, the best thing that can happen to those kids is to be exposed to good baseball and eventually good scouts and colleges ... (that will be) watching those boys play.

"The competition and the organization (provided by) Perfect Game is unlike any other organization around."

When looking strictly at the statistical data produced from the Prospects' first three games here, it's kind of remarkable they won their pool championship.

They hit a pedestrian .246 (16-for-25) as a team, with 13 singles and three triples. Alec Sanchez (2017, Jacksonville, Fla.) was 3-for-7 (.429) with a triple and four RBI; Alejandro Toral (2017, Davie, Fla.) was 3-for-7 (.429) with a triple and two RBI; and leadoff hitter Jose Ciccarello (2016, Tampa, Fla.) was 3-for-6 (.500) with three singles, four runs scored, and RBI and four stolen bases, to provide the highlights.

Melendez used 10 pitchers over 19 innings -- one worked four innings, one three and the other eight either two or one -- and they combined to allow four earned runs (1.47 ERA) on nine hits while striking out 16 and walking 12.

But one of those intangibles this team has going for it is experience, even if the players are only eighth- and ninth-graders. Eight players that are the Prospects' roster this weekend -- including Sanchez and Ciccarello --also played on last year's MBA Pride Elite squad that won the 13u PG BCS Finals national championship in Fort Myers, Fla.

"Unlike any other event, that BCS (Finals) last summer was the most competitive tournament that we played in," Melendez said. "We were very fortunate to play well at the right time; we certainly know that we've got a very good team but they're young athletes and their games aren't going to be the best every single time out.

"You've got to learn how to win when you're not at your best and that whole week we played well, but sometimes we didn't play very well and we found a way to win."

A couple of other top guys that are here this Martin Luther King Holiday Weekend are Mervyl "MJ" Melendez (2017, Montgomery, Ala.), the coach's son, and Charlie "Kobe" Lopez (2016, Orlando, Fla.). Sanchez, MJ Melendez and Lopez have already committed to play college baseball at Alabama State University in Montgomery, Ala.

That really isn't as surprising as it might seem at first glance. The elder Mervyl Melendez spent 12 years as the head baseball coach at Bethune-Cookman University in Daytona Beach, which is where he was at when he founded the Melendez Baseball Academy. But he then accepted the head coaching job at Alabama State right before the 2012 season and relocated his family to Montgomery.

He is now beginning his second season at Alabama State, and he said he brought in 15 freshman this school year to go with the 20 he brought in last year. He was quick to point out that the majority of those 35 newcomers to his program are PG alumni.

"This is where (colleges) come to scout and that's why I want our young boys to be exposed to this," he said. "If they want to get some exposure and play at the next level, they're going to need to be here."

That's why he brought this group of youngsters all the way across the country to play in this event in the Valley of the Sun. Melendez firmly believes there is no such thing as too much exposure.

"I would just say, if there are any other events, let us know, because we want to be a part of this," he said. "There just aren't any events on the other side (of the country this time of year) so we decided to come out here and show that we want to be a part of good baseball; we want to be a part of whatever is around nationally that is going to bring in the competition and take our kids to the next level."

In fact, the biggest draw of the MLK Championship in Melendez's mind was the fact that the tournament was almost 2,400 miles from most of these kids' homes in Florida. It's still the United States and it's still the game of baseball, but there are subtle differences in culture and style of play. Melendez always hopes his guys will be able to face a team from the West Coast whenever he takes them to a big, national event.

"We don't get to see them very often ... and then sometimes the draw isn't there for you to play against a West Coast team," he said. "To be exposed to a different type of baseball helps our kids, but having them out of their element, out of their environment (is just as important). You stay on the East Coast and that's what you know, and you can play well and you're familiar with the surroundings -- (you need to) go to another environment and see what you can do."

Melendez said it his goal to keep this core group of kids playing together throughout their high school careers, which would be for the next four years (there are three 2016s on the 16-man roster and the rest are 2017s). By the time the summer of 2016 rolls around the 2017s will be playing their final summer, fall and winter seasons at PG tournaments, and it could be a pretty formidable group.

"I think we have a core group of kids that you're going to see play in college, at least, and some of  them -- we hope and pray -- will make it beyond that," Melendez said. "As long as they get seen, they get a great education and they become great in society, that's what this is all about. MBA isn't just about baseball, it's about life lessons and that's what we try to teach them."

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