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High School | Rankings | 2/22/2013

Ex-MLB pops guide top AZ preps

Jeff Dahn        

2013 Perfect Game High School Baseball Preview Index

One of the first labels in life top Arizona high school prospect Cody Bellinger was slapped with was that of the son of a former big-league ballplayer. Bellinger’s father, Clay Bellinger, played parts of four seasons – 183 games total – with the New York Yankees and Anaheim Angels from 1999-2002, and performed in two World Series with the Yankees in 2000 and 2001.

Being the son of a former professional ballplayer is the only form of existence Cody Bellinger knows. And, to be certain, it’s an existence he wouldn’t trade for any other, even if he knew what another might be like. Clay Bellinger also spent parts or all of 16 seasons in the minor leagues, and has passed some valuable life lessons onto his son.

“It’s been helpful for me because my dad never had the easiest road to the majors,” Cody Bellinger said this week. “If that would happen to me, he knows all the little tricks on how to stay focused; he’s been a big help to me.”

Bellinger is a 6-foot-4, 180-pound, 17-year-old senior first baseman/outfielder/left-hander at No. 40 PG nationally ranked Hamilton High School in Chandler, Ariz., the second highest ranked team from PG’s Southwest Region. Bellinger is ranked No. 74 in Perfect Game’s class of 2013 national prospect rankings and No. 1 in the state of Arizona.

He is also not alone in being a highly ranked Arizona prospect that also happens to be the son of former big-leaguer. Riley Unroe, a 17-year-old senior shortstop/outfielder at Desert Ridge High School in Mesa who is ranked 79th nationally and No. 2 in Arizona, is the son of ex-big-leaguer Tim Unroe. Brantley Bell, an 18-year-old senior shortstop/third baseman at Mountain Pointe High School in Phoenix who is ranked 218th nationally and No. 7 in Arizona, is the son 18-year MLB veteran Jay Bell.

And they are not the only three Arizona high school players that are sons of former professional ballplayers. Micah Franklin, a scout in the Arizona Diamondbacks organization who appeared in 17 games for the St. Louis Cardinals in 1997, told PG you can hardly swing a dead rattlesnake without hitting a former professional ballplayer when attending a high school game in the Valley.

“The high school season is about to start, and you can go and see ex-professional baseball players (in attendance) at every field in Arizona,” Franklin said. “You go to a game and you can see a Hall-of-Fame dad, you can see a World Champion dad, you can see a long-time minor-leaguer dad, you can see someone who’s now coaching in professional baseball.

“These kids grow up with other kids who are sons of professional baseball players, so there’s not a sense of entitlement at all with any of these kids,” he said. “They’re all great kids; they work hard and they want to prove themselves and make a name for themselves.”

Of these three prospects’ dads, Jay Bell had the longest and most productive major league career. He played in all or parts of 18 seasons from 1986-2003 – including eight with the Pittsburgh Pirates and five with the Diamondbacks – and was named to the NL All-Star team as a Pirate in 1993 and as a Diamondback in 1999. He won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards in 1993 and enjoyed his best season in 1999 when he hit .289 with 38 home runs, 112 RBI and 132 runs scored.

The Pirates named Jay Bell their hitting coach this past October. Brantley had been working out with his dad up until a couple of weeks ago when Jay had to report to Bradenton, Fla., for the Pirates’ spring training camp; Brantley plans to join his dad for a couple of weeks in March over his spring break.

“My dad has always told me that he’s had his career so now it’s my turn, and he’ll help me if I want it,” Brantley Bell said this week. “He’s been teaching me my whole life the same thing that he’s giving to the big-leaguers right now, and he’s got a real good idea of how the game is supposed to be played and he’s taught me that. I’ve really studied the game and looked into it, and certainly having him (accomplish) what he did has helped me out a lot just because I know everything he’s talking about is going to be for my benefit.”

Tim Unroe appeared in 79 major league games from 1995-2000 with the Brewers, Angels and Braves, and spent parts or all of 11 seasons in the minor leagues. That’s a total of 16 years playing professional baseball, plenty of time to gather enough valuable knowledge to pass along to his son.

“My dad has helped me in every aspect of the game,” Riley Unroe said. “He’s helped me grow as a baseball player everyday and he teaches me new things as often as possible. I’m constantly feeding off of him and picking his brain just trying to get better.”

Tim Unroe, 42, now serves as an assistant coach at Desert Ridge. “He’s always out there critiquing me,” Riley said with a laugh.

Bellinger, Unroe and Bell attend separate high schools in the Phoenix-area’s Valley of Sun but all have enjoyed measured amounts of success with their schools. Bellinger’s Hamilton team finished 23-9 in 2012; Unroe’s Desert Ridge team finished 21-12; and Bell’s Mountain Pointe team ended 19-11-1. They’re all going into the 2013 season – which began this week – with high expectations.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been more excited about anything,” Bellinger said. “All the time we’ve put in practicing I’m extremely excited to get going.”

The three prospects combined to play in 13 Perfect Game events over the last two years and all three have signed national letters of intent with D-I universities: Bellinger with Oregon, Unroe with Southern Cal and Bell with Mississippi. All three were at the PG National Showcase in Minneapolis in mid-June and were teammates with the Arizona Elite team Franklin coached at the 17u Perfect Game World Series in Peoria, Ariz., in late July.

“It’s been awesome,” Bellinger said of his PG experience. “My first really big (showcase) was in Minnesota and that’s when I kind of kick-started my offseason and started getting noticed by people, showing them what I could do in front of a ton of scouts. All those tournaments are really big and they help, and they’re always a lot of fun.”

Unroe agreed: “It was really fun meeting new kids from all over the country,” he said. “I really liked it, but I would say it was a pretty strange environment just because I had never really played in front of a ton of people, and then when you do something good you don’t hear anything but paper turning from all those scouts.”

Bell and Unroe were terrific at the 17u PGWS. Bell played in all seven of Arizona Elite’s games and went 8-for-19 (.421) with a double, triple, six RBI and six runs. Unroe was 6-for-14 (.429) in six games, with a triple, an RBI, eight runs, six walks and a .619 on-base percentage.

Arizona Elite was basically and Arizona high school all-star team, and 15 of its roster spots were filled with prospects that had D-I commitments, including Bellinger, Unroe and Bell.

“I’m good friends with every single one of these guys here in Arizona and we all keep up with each other,” Bell said. “I think playing with those guys gets you better because you have to compete with them. We have a great chemistry when we’re a team and it’s just a lot of fun being with those guys.”

“All those guys, they’re all good dudes and we really play well together,” Unroe said. “We’re all friends off the field and on the field and we play against each other during the high school season. It’s fun to play against your buddies.”

Bellinger’s time to shine arrived in September at the PG/EvoShield National Championship (Upperclass) in Goodyear, Ariz. Playing with the Franklin-coached Dbacks Elite Scout Team, he was 6-for-9 (.667) with two doubles, two triples, three RBI, six runs, a 1.333 SLG and a 2.083 OPS in four games.

“Cody is an outstanding player,” Franklin said. “You can put him on the mound, you can put him at first base – he’s one of the top high school defensive first baseman. You hate to take him off of first base because he’s so good around the bag but he’s so athletic he can play the outfield. He comes to play, and he’s extremely polite young man; there’s not a day that he doesn’t leave the ballpark and say thank you for the workout.”

Riley Unroe was only 5 years old when his father stopped playing professionally in 2000; Cody Bellinger was 7 when his dad hung up his spikes in 2002; and Brantley Bell was the ripe of old age of 9 when Jay hung it up in 2003. Bell, especially, has some lasting memories

“I remember being around it and it’s been cool because now I know what to expect when I get into pro ball; it won’t be total culture shock right when I get there,” he said. “When he used to take me (to the big league ballparks) it was awesome because he would bring out and I hang out with the guys and they’d teach me everything.”

Jay Bell, 47, won a World Series ring in 2001 when his D-backs beat Clay Bellinger’s Yankees in seven games. “I remember every minute of it,” Brantley said of that World Series.

Clay Bellinger, 44, is now a firefighter in Gilbert, Ariz., but has stayed involved with baseball through coaching his sons. Cody said he has fond memories of when his dad was playing with the Yankees, and even remembered a time when he was hitting in the same batting cage as Derek Jeter.

“I really remember just learning everything (about baseball) because of my dad playing professionally,” Cody said. “He has passed on everything he knows to me, and how to play the game right with character and respect. He’s taught me everything about hitting – every time I’m in a slump or even if I’m hitting good, I ask him questions and he’s there to answer them. We have a cage in our backyard so I hit with him every time he’s home and sometimes we’ll just go out and hit at the field when he wants to go. It’s nice having him around.”

Franklin has enjoyed being around Cody, Riley and Brantley and their parents. He said it’s easy to see how the boys have benefitted from the upbringings.

“These are great kids; every single one of them are great kids,” he said. “They’ve been around professional baseball, so they know what it’s like. Now it’s their turn to live their dream and they’re giving it everything they got. They’re good-mannered, well-behaved kids that were raised right by their parents; they take nothing for granted and they really, really work hard.”

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