July 9, 2004
So, You Want To Be A Baseball Player...
Like most college baseball programs around the country, this time of year brings hordes of young rugrats eager to be the next Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, or Zack Roper. These days, parents will spare no expense in order to provide every opportunity for the little guys to learn the game before they can do fractions!
I think back to being eight years old and having my parents lie about my birth date so I could get on the team coached by my neighbor Ellie Rothrock. My brother was in his last year on that team and that gave them the rights to me. My new birthday was on July 30th to beat the August 1st cutoff. So, I was actually not quite nine when I started playing. These days, kids are retiring at nine years old.
My generation is probably most guilty of rushing the formal entry into organized sports for our children. As a result, kids are trying to hit and catch baseballs well before their eye - hand coordination has developed. We have five year olds playing T - Ball, decked out in full uniforms and batting gloves. Eye black is optional.
I'm convinced that all this organization and competition is bad for the kids and for the game of baseball.
How many little guys wisely stop playing because the ball hurts when it hits you, and you strike out most of the time. I think we lose many potential baseball players because our children are trying to do something that their bodies are not prepared to do.
But, they sure look cute in their little uniforms and oversized hats. And when one of them connects and slides safely into third, (after three overthrows) the look of joy on his face lights up the field.
As these youngsters progress through their baseball careers, the best wind up playing in college and dreaming of being a pro. We talked about the draft and the joy and pain that it brings, but the story doesn't end there.
Florida Atlantic currently has twenty one former players in professional baseball.
Tim Harikkala is with the Rockies having a solid year in their bullpen. Earlier I chronicled his struggle to stay in the game he loves. Thankfully it's working out the way he wants. The rest of our alums are in the minor leagues, fifteen with affiliated teams, and five playing in independent leagues.
For these guys, the game is a bit different. There isn't a great deal of money being made, travel is tougher than our bus rides, and the towns aren't exactly like Boca.
But these guys all share the same love for this crazy game that binds together the young and the old, the talented and the clumsy, the gifted and the impaired. It is hard to let go of something that has held you in its grasp for so long.
Zack Roper played for us in 1999 and 2000. He came in as a third baseman but soon became an outstanding rightfielder. We won 97 games with Zack in the lineup, 34 of them in a row.
In 1999 he drove in our only run in the ninth to beat Florida International and put us into the championship game of the Coral Gables Regional. I remember him crying on my shoulder the next year when we were eliminated by Miami. He said that all he wanted was to play pro ball, but he wouldn't ever trade it for his college career.
Zack got his chance when the Angels drafted him that June. He played hard for them until late in 2003 when he was traded to Texas. We figured this was a break to get Zack moved out of A ball with the new organization.
This spring Zach was released by the Rangers. He came home and went back to parking cars while he tried to hook on with someone. He had two good offers in different independent leagues when the Cardinals called. They needed another player for their Palm Beach team in Jupiter. Zach started commuting to play pro baseball.
After two weeks it was obvious he wasn't in their plans. Zach was told he would DH against lefthanders. He asked for his release and went back to parking cars.
Two weeks later he was in my office looking for a new pair of spikes. An independent team in the Northern League had signed him and he was leaving to drive to South Dakota.
When Zach arrived, the situation wasn't good. He was traded to a team in a different league. He got back in his car and drove to his new team in Iowa. This was even worse. The field was terrible, they wanted him to play third base, he just wanted out.
Next stop was a brief one back in Boca. Then he was offered a job on a team in Gary, Indiana. Back in the car, and on the road, Zach had a lot of time to think. What was he doing? What was driving him? Was it some Peter Pan thing? Maybe his long anticipated engagement? Who knows?
Gary wasn't the answer. Four at bats in two weeks will tell you where you stand. Zack jumped in the car and drove to visit Anthony Doudt, his former FAU teammate. After filling Anthony in on his frequent driver record, Zack got a call from the Phillies.
They wanted him for their team in Clearwater, about three miles from where he went to high school.
Who said you can never go home again?
I may have missed a stop or two on Zack's 2004 journey, but I hope the Clearwater one works out for him. I would like to tell his story to all those little kids in our camp, or to my four year old son Luke, but why spoil their dreams?
All they want is to be a baseball player. KC