Tournaments : : Story
Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Reaching the top together

Jeff Dahn        
Photo: Perfect Game

GOODYEAR, Ariz. – It is sometimes difficult to believe that it’s only been a little over three years since Mike Garciaparra and his father, Ramon, formed the Garciaparra Baseball Group (GBG). The Group became such an immediately impactful presence on the national Perfect Game tournament scene, there’s this sense it’s been around forever.

The GBG Marucci team that is at this week’s 17u Perfect Game World Series is typical of the teams that the Garciaparras have fielded in recent years in that as of the close of the business day Monday at the Goodyear Ballpark Complex, it had put itself into position to win a PG national championship tournament title.

It qualified for the playoffs as the No. 6 seed after finishing second in its pool with a 3-1-0 record, and then escaped the No. 3 Dallas (Tex.) Patriots by a 6-5 count in a tense first-round matchup. Finally, on Monday night, they knocked-off No. 2 Elite Squad Prime (4-2-0) – the team that beat them during pool-play – 10-2 in the winner’s bracket semifinal and will take a 5-1-0 record against the No. 5 Orlando Scorpions Prime (5-1-0) in the championship game late Tuesday morning at Goodyear Ballpark.

GBG Marucci is without several of its top players at this event for a variety of reasons. A few of the pitchers, including PG All-American right-hander Kevin Gowdy, have been shut-down just to give them some much-needed time-off after a very busy spring and summer. Gowdy is expected to pitch in the PG All-American Classic at Petco Park in San Diego on Aug. 16.

A few of the top position players had other obligations – it all comes with the territory in late July – and these circumstances make head coach Mike Garciaparra all the more proud of the way the Group has performed over the last four days.

“Our pitching has been outstanding,” he said Monday. “We gave up four runs to the Elite Squad (during pool-play) and you can’t give up one run to that squad – they’re outstanding, they’re well-coached and they do the little things really well. We’ve been playing very good defense for the most part with some big double-plays. The guys are playing hard and grinding out some at-bats, and I’ve definitely been pleased with their effort.”

Programs like GBG aren’t built without solid foundations, of course, and GBG can put a face on one of its earliest cornerstones. Ben Baird is a 6-foot-2, 180-pound shortstop from Agoura Hills, Calif., who has committed to the University of Washington and just last week was awarded one of the final spots on the West Team’s roster at next month’s PG All-American Classic.

On Monday, even before GBG Marucci beat the Patriots in that 17u PGWS first-round playoff game, Baird wasn’t thinking a whole lot about the Classic or four days in beautiful San Diego or playing in the Padres’ Petco Park or anything, really, that is still weeks away. He was thinking about winning a championship at the 17u PG World Series.

“I feel like things have gone pretty good and I think we have a lot of pitching left, which is also good,” Baird said of GBG’s playoff run. “We have a lot of guys here that we can just call on at any time who will come-up big for us, and we know we can trust them.

“We’ve just been pretty much firing on all cylinders,” he said. “We’ve been getting clutch hits when we need them, our defense has been outstanding and our pitchers have been doing a great job.”

GBG Marucci beat the St. Louis (Mo.) Pirates, North East Baseball out of Worchester, Mass., and Slammers Holzema from Denver, and lost to Elite Squad Prime from Pembroke Pines, Fla., during pool-play; GBG outscored those four opponents by a combined 12-11.

While the playoff-opener against the Patriots was a nail-biter – both teams used four pitchers – Monday night’s semifinal, “back-at-you” win over the Elite Squad Prime allowed for a little more breathe-easy time, especially after a three-run first inning and four-run second.

GBG’s offense has done just enough to get by with 2016s like Spencer Steer (an Oregon commit), Will Proctor (Georgia) and Kyle Cuellar (UCLA) swinging big-time, run-producing bats. 2016 right-handers Casey Legumina, Johnny Morell and Zane Strand combined to pitch 18, 11-hit innings, allowing one earned run with 19 strikeouts and seven walks. Legumina threw six shutout innings, allowing four hits, striking out 10 and walking three.

The “please-take-a-bow performance” came from 2016 left-hander Chaz Montoya Monday night when he allowed only one earned run on five hits with eight strikeouts and one walk over five effective innings in the 10-2 semifinal win over Elite Squad Prime.

And then there is Baird, who has not enjoyed a PG All-American-caliber type of tournament through six games, hitting .261 (6-for-23) with a double, an RBI, four runs scored, three walks and a stolen base while hitting out of the leadoff spot. But he has a lot going for him as far as the GBG Marucci program is concerned – he is one of the original members of the Group.

Baird showed up at a tryout as a scrawny-looking eighth-grader more than three years ago, but there was just something about him that caught the eye of both Garciaparras, especially the patriarch Ramon.

“We’re only 3-years-old as a program … and Ben was with us as an eighth-grader and we didn’t even have an eighth-grade team,” Mike Garciaparra said. “He was this skinny little guy who could barely hit the ball out of the infield but he wanted to play with our freshmen team and we said, ‘Yeah, absolutely.’

“We just always saw that there was something there, and even my dad said, ‘That kid is going to be one of our best ballplayers, you just watch.’”

Listed at 5-foot-10, 165-pounds, Baird first entered PG’s database when he was placed on the GBG Marucci Blue roster for the 2013 Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championship (Underclass) as a 15-year-old sophomore at Agoura High School. It was a fairly nondescript debut and PG scouts didn’t see him again until he was at this event exactly a year ago this week. Again, not much to write home about.

That changed about six weeks later when he returned to the PG/EvoShield Underclass and this time was named to the all-tournament team. After participating in the inaugural PG California World Series (Underclass) with GBG Marucci in early October 2014, he then traveled with the Group to amateur baseball’s equivalent of the “big dance” – the PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.

That proved to be a deal-maker. The annual scouting community extravaganza in Jupiter in late October is meant to showcase the upper-classmen one last time, but Baird and many other underclassmen exceeded expectations by being named to the all-tournament team. He was joined on that honor roll by fellow GBG 2016s Steer, Gowdy and Jack Little, but only Steer is with him this week in the desert.

Baird remembers a much smaller GBG Marucci group when he first entered the program and is amazed when he contemplates its growth. He calls it both “cool” and “awesome” to be one of its original members and likes the fact that the core of this Group has stuck together and challenged for PG tournament championships on a regular basis.

“I think we’ve kind of found our own identity and I think other teams kind of realize that,” Baird said. “We like to have fun out there but we play hard, and we just try to get it done.”

He attributes that identity – that mindset, if you will – to GMG Marucci’s coaching staff. He credits the instruction he’s received and even the subtle tips that have been handed down by the staff for his continued development as a ballplayer, a process that led him to being named a PG All-American.

“The main thing with (Mike Garciaparra) is he wants us to play every single pitch like it’s our last; he wants us to be totally in the game,” Baird said. “He tells us it’s only two hours and if you can’t stay focused for two hours than he doesn’t want you here. It really motivates us when he says, ‘Hey, just give me all you’ve got for two hours out there and you can rest afterwards.’ I think that really helps us out and helps us stay in the game.”

When Garciaparra looks at Baird, he sees a kid who is willing to put in the extra effort needed to get things done. If you tell Baird he needs to get stronger or faster or he needs to work on his hands and feet in the infield or work on his approach at the plate, he’ll get right to work. And, lo-and-behold, weeks or months later, he’s shown improvement in every facet.

“I’m not surprised he’s turned himself into an All-American because he’s always had the tools and the ability,” Garciaparra said. “Once the strength came everybody started to notice him and I say to them, ‘I’ve had him since eighth-grade and I’ve been telling you all about him for a long time.’”

Another of Baird’s attributes that is especially appealing to everyone involved is his intelligence, and he applies it both in the classroom and out on the field. He sports a 4.0 grade-point average – a number his recruiters at Washington had to find especially appealing – and his smarts make him a welcome addition to just about any program or organization.

When Mike and Ramon Garciaparra started the Group with 18 kids and one team, it was youngsters like Baird they were trying to attract. The goal was to move the kids they brought in on to college one day, and while Mike Garciaparra admits he now accepts kids that might not be as astute academically as Baird because they’re going to be high draft considerations, he still targets the academic over-achievers.

“We want those kids because it shows that they have aptitude, that they work hard on and off the field and that they’re serious not just about their baseball careers but their life in general,” he said. “That helps determine what kind of baseball player they’re going to be … and it’s going to make for a whole better team if you have a bunch of guys that are on the same page like that.”

Three years in, Garciaparra said he is “ecstatic” about the heights the GBG Marucci program has reached. He and his dad never imagined they would be competing for PG national championships on playing fields from Phoenix to Jupiter, Fla., and would be coaching PG All-Americans like Ben Baird and Kevin Gowdy this year, and Kyle Dean and Dominic Smith the last two years.

All they set out to do was challenge the kids in their program by giving them the opportunity to go head-to-head with the best competition in the country. GBG has been blessed to not only have top-notch kids but supportive families, as well. To Garciaparra’s way of thinking, those players and families wouldn’t mind being treated to a PG tournament championship or two along the way.

“We want to teach winning and development,” he said. “Some people say it’s not all about winning, and that’s true, but you want to teach these kids to be winners because that’s what college coaches want – they want kids that know how to win and compete. If you have two players with the same skill-set, the one that knows how to win and compete is going to separate himself.”

In three short years the Garciaparra Baseball Group has become an undisputed player on the national scene, right up there alongside any program in the country. The significance of the opportunities presented at events like the 17u PG World Series provides isn’t lost on a program cornerstone like Ben Baird.

“The competition out here is great with the top 20 teams in the country,” he said. “Twenty of the top teams – the best competition, the best pitching – it’s definitely a real fun event. I’m hoping I can take away some more confidence because here you’re seeing pretty much the best. If you can compete out here against these guys you can just get it in your head that you can handle just about anything.”

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