The 2016 MLB Draft is in the rear-view mirror, and teams are gearing up for 2017. One of the biggest scouting draws each summer are the collegiate summer leagues, where college players go to show off their skills.
Everyone knows about the Cape Cod League, where some of the country's top players go to show off their prowess with wood bats. But fewer people know about the dozens of other summer leagues - the Northwoods League, the Coastal Plains League, the Florida Collegiate Summer League, the Great Lakes Summer Collegiate League, the Valley Baseball League. The names go on and on. Many, but not all, give their players the opportunity to showcase their prowess with wood bats.
Right in my own backyard is the California Collegiate League (CCL), a twelve-team organization comprised almost entirely of college players who call California home in the off-season. And, like its namesake state, the CCL offers a lot of extremes. For most of these players, this will be the only time they handle wood bats. But stuck between the cracks, if you look hard enough, you might find some stones worth polishing.
One Saturday last month, I decided to catch a couple of CCL games. The first featured the SoCal Catch against the Long Beach Legends.
As I arrived at Joe T. Hicks Memorial Stadium, on the campus of Long Beach City College, about a dozen people had scattered themselves around the long metal bleachers, filling the few pockets of shade under the blazing hot Long Beach sun. Next door, motorcycles raced in the nearly-vacant parking lot.
Among the parents and girlfriends was one scout, baking in the third row behind home plate, alone but for his sunflower seeds and his diet Snapple peach tea. The umpires stumbled out of their air-conditioned refuge just seven minutes before the first pitch, looking fresh and crisp. That wouldn't last.
The highlight of that game was easily Cornell lefty Justin Lewis, who masterfully handled the Catch, mixing a nice breaking ball among his low-nineties fastball to strike out nine batters and walk just one in a seven-inning shutout. Lewis allowed just three hits in the contest, leaving the SoCal players befuddled in the 9-0 route.
As I left the stadium, I went into the mens room, where I was flanked on either side by Legends players, in full uniform.
Just a few miles away, up the CA-91 in Compton, the scene couldn't have been more different at the beautiful ten-acre MLB Urban Youth Academy, home of the Academy Barons. Seats with cup holders and an overhead roof. A cool breeze coming in over the immaculately-trimmed field. A full electronic scoreboard. Crisp, pressed white uniforms for the home team.
There was one thing in common, though: Inasmuch as there was any sort of a crowd, it was almost entirely filled with family. This time, there were two scouts and a college coach, packing their radar guns and clipboards. The coach left after the third inning. Even at its best, the CCL is a long way from Cape Cod - both literally and figuratively.
As I sat down, I was greeted by an intern who gave me a printed roster, media notes, and cucumber water. I'm kidding about the cucumber water, but she did say to ask if I need anything else, so one never knows for sure.
Here, the player of the game was easily Academy right fielder Cody Den Beste, a senior at Prairie View A&M, who belted two home runs in the contest with easy power. On the other side of the field, the Orange County Riptide's right fielder, Chase Goldwater, also stood out. At 6'4", 220 pounds, he immediately passes the eye test, and he also packed a nice, compact swing. He'll be playing for Mississippi State this year after transferring from Temple College.
This past weekend, the CCL season closed quietly, with the Santa Barbara Foresters winning their twenty-first league championship. Soon, players will be heading back to college and into Fall Ball practice. They'll take with them the memories and the experiences they had playing over the summer, and a few may carry some increased scouting attention with them.
The scouts, themselves, have plenty left to do. Next week, the American Legion World Series kicks into gear and the Area Code Games will begin. Showcases and tournaments will continue to demand attention. Polishing diamonds is a lot of work, and finding the diamonds worth polishing is even more work yet. As the college season picks up in a few months and the draft talk begins, a lot of the names you start to hear were born here, on the dirt-strewn, heat-soaked fields of summer amateur baseball.
And for the players in sweat-soaked stirrups and mud-packed cleats, standing at urinals alongside college coaches and amateur scouts, those that don't hear their names called in April won't be able to say they didn't give it their all. At least they can say they pursued their dreams.