August 9, 2014 7:04:20 PM
Joe Caruso knows how much baseball talent there is in the state of Mississippi.
When Caruso worked as an assistant coach at Meridian Community College, he would recruit in towns he had never heard of and find talented players who could play at the highest levels of college baseball.
But Caruso, a former All-American at Alabama, has been around the game long enough to know coaches these days want more bang for their buck, which means they are less likely to go to a high school to watch one player. Instead, college coaches and scouts want to see as many talented players and teams as possible at one site. They also want to see those players matched up against players of comparable skill so they can better evaluate everyone and project if the players will be able to help their programs.
That thinking was part of Caruso's motivation last year when he partnered with Eric DuBose and Greg Sykes to form the East Coast Baseball Organization, Inc. The goal of East Coast Baseball, which is an offshoot of East Coast Grays Southeast, is to give players the opportunity to gain exposure to professional scouts and college coaches by attending premier showcase events.
With nine teams and 162 players this past season, East Coast Baseball, which draws players from Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, Arkansas, and Tennessee, regularly plays on college campuses in the region like Ole Miss, South Alabama, and Samford. Next summer, Caruso said East Coast Baseball will play host to a tournament at Mississippi State and Ole Miss. He said the events typically attract the best showcase teams in the nation.
Caruso said he wanted East Coast Baseball to have its own identity, so it follows a Christ-centered approach that is designed to help the players grow physically, mentally, and spiritually.
Dating back to 2009 when some form of East Coast Baseball existed, 200 players have committed to play college baseball, including 16 in the class of 2015. One of those players is New Hope High School rising senior Wells Davis. Last month, the left-handed hitting first baseman gave a verbal commitment to play baseball at South Alabama. Coming off playing a key role in a second-consecutive state title with New Hope, Davis said his time with East Coast Baseball played an integral role in his getting seen by the coaches at South Alabama.
"The weekend Wells had (at a showcase tournament) at South Alabama was just unbelievable, said Caruso, who is the hitting coordinator for East Coast Baseball. "He his six doubles and was hitting balls off the wall. One of the South Alabama coaches who is a friend of mine asked me, 'How do we steal him away?' I told him to talk to Wells about the value of your program. They did a great job."
Davis found a spot on East Coast Baseball like a lot of other players. Caruso just so happened to be at camps at Mississippi State and at Ole Miss and saw Davis. He immediately knew he had to have him. He enlisted the help of Sykes, whose son, Hunter, goes to Heritage Academy in Columbus and also is a member of East Coast Baseball.
It didn't take Sykes and Caruso long to convince Davis to join the organization. What followed included a whirlwind of baseball and trips to Meridian Community College, Southeastern Louisiana, South Alabama, Samford, Ole Miss, and the Perfect Game WWBA 17-and-under National Championship.
Caruso said all nine of East Coast Baseball's teams travel together to the first four events of the season in an effort to build fellowship.
Even though East Coast Baseball has multiple teams in multiple age groups, Caruso said the goal is the same: to get the highest quality players as much exposure as possible.
Ideally, he said the organization attends and holds events in a 150-mile radius from its home in Lowndes County.
If players are interested in playing for East Coast Baseball, Caruso said they can go to the organization's website -- eastcoastbaseball.org -- and fill out a player profile. He said he, Sykes, and Dubose use player, parent, and coach referrals to locate players and then evaluate them. Once players are in the organization, Caruso said East Coast Baseball sends updates out to college coaches so they can monitor their progress.
He said East Coast Baseball also tweets out player updates and accomplishments to help them build a profile and to keep them on the minds of college coaches. He said more than 1,200 people, including a lot of college coaches, follow East Coast Baseball on Twitter.
"We have number of college coaches who know what kind of product we put on the field, and they know we're not going to lie to them about the players," said Caruso, who spends 12 months a year focused on East Coast Baseball. "We have been so successful because we have worked so hard to get wonderful kids and wonderful parents. We give the college coaches all the kids' information. We tell them who their high school coach is so the college coach doesn't have to work as hard.
"In summer baseball, it is about the college coaches getting the best bang for their buck. We put on good tournaments for them to do that.
For a wealth of kids from small towns, it is such a wonderful opportunity because college coaches can't go to that one game, but they can go to that showcase."
DuBose, who is the baseball coach at American Christian Academy in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, is pitching coordinator of East Coast Baseball.
The former All-American at MSU was a first-round draft pick by the Oakland A's in 1997. He went on to play five years for Major League Baseball's Baltimore Orioles (2002-06). The left-handed pitcher had a career record of 9-15 in 52 games with the Orioles.
DuBose spent time as a coach at Wayne County High in Mississippi and as the pitching coach at West Alabama before joining with Caruso and Sykes to form East Coast Baseball. He said it is a perfect fit because all three men love baseball, young working with young men, and love the Lord.
"Those three things give us the opportunity and a chance to share and be a part of something we really enjoy," DuBose said. "I think we all bring something unique to the table, Joe and I from the baseball side of it, we bring something from our past experience and the levels we were able to play at and we sort of wanted to give back. Greg is a giving servant who is aways looking how serve others and help young men, and help Joe and me. He really has a gift of being a very good servant to others."
DuBose isn't sure what plan God has in store for East Coast Baseball, but he said the organization will continue to strive to put the best players out on the field. He hopes he, Joe, and the other coaches and coordinators in the organization can set the right example and offer the best instruction to help all of the players realize their potential and their dream to play baseball in college. He also said everyone in East Coast Baseball wants to help produce quality young men off the field.
"Travel ball has changed a lot in the last 10-15 years," DuBose said. "American Legion used to be the big thing. It is still big and a good thing, but a lot of kids are doing travel ball. Nowadays kids are more focused on one sport. They used to play all sports, but now it seems like kids are focused on one sport at an earlier age. I think the recruiting part of it has changed because years ago coaches used to get out and beat the bushes. Now it is real hard for a kid to fall through the cracks and get missed because of all of the travel ball tournaments and opportunities."
More eyes on baseball
Gene Swindoll has been covering college baseball since 1996 for Gene's Page, a Scout.com website that provides coverage of Mississippi State.
An avid baseball fan, Swindoll has traveled throughout the country following college baseball recruiting, especially the work of MSU coach John Cohen and his staff. Swindoll said the growth of showcase baseball teams and tournaments can be directly tied to giving college coaches and professional scouts what they want.
Swindoll said Perfect Game USA, the largest amateur baseball scouting service in the world, has been instrumental in the growth of showcase baseball.
Perfect Game USA has a World Wood Bat Association (WWBA), which is for wood bat teams, and a metal bat division, which is called BCS. According to its website, Perfect Game USA plays host to more than 100 tournaments and showcases each year.
"You will see every Major League team represented with a general manager or a scout and you will see most college coaches (at Perfect Game events)," Swindoll said. "It has grown so much that when you go to Perfect Game events (in Marietta, Georgia), they keep adding games and teams and fields. I can't tell you how much it has grown. The players can be seen by just about everyone when they go to these things."
Swindoll said families pay anywhere from $1,500-$2,300 to have their children participate on the teams, which usually start at 14-and-under and go all the way up to senior-to-be in high school. Swindoll said organizations like Perfect Game USA typically charge hundreds of dollars for teams to attend their tournaments.
As expensive as that sounds, Swindoll acknowledges the costs of playing for an organization like Perfect Game USA or East Coast Baseball actually work as a college investment if the player gets a scholarship. To realize that goal, Swindoll said players usually test themselves against top-notch competition.
"You're talking about guys who are going to be first-round Major League Baseball draft picks," Swindoll said. "The level of competition is as good as you're going to get."
Swindoll isn't sure how much bigger showcase baseball is going to get.
He said he has heard Perfect Game USA is expanding its facilities and adding 12 or more fields, which will help it attract more teams, more players, and more coaches. He said he often sees signs that advertise restaurants and hotels that are being built in those areas to capitalize on the economic impact of the tournaments.
In Mississippi and in this area, Swindoll said East Coast Baseball and Dulins Dodgers, which is based out of Memphis, Tennessee, are two of the biggest organizations. He said there are other organizations like the Mississippi Prospects and the Mississippi Braves that also participate in the showcase baseball circuit.
Lots of opportunities
With so many teams, college coaches can have their pick of where to go to see the most talent. Cohen agrees showcase baseball has grown largely to meet the needs of college coaches and professional scouts.
He said it is much different for a college coach to attend a showcase tournament and know the caliber of competition as opposed to go to a high school game where there aren't as many college prospects and try to project how he thinks a player will develop.
"If I can drive two to three hours and watch 10 really good players, that is a better use of our recruiting time than if we drive five hours and watch one player," Cohen said. "Like (MSU associate head coach/pitching coach) Butch (Thompson) says, 'Iron sharpens iron.' It is better the more we get to see a really good player against a really good pitcher or a really good team."
Cohen said the growth of showcase tournaments and showcases has helped in another way because recruiting is such an inexact science. He said it is extremely difficult to determine if a 15- or 16-year-old player is going to be able to help MSU when he is 20 or 21. He also said it isn't uncommon for coaches to evaluate players and to believe theywon't be able to play in their conference only to see them mature and develop into Major Leaguers when they are in their mid-20s.
Earning a college scholarship can be the first step a player takes toward realizing a career in professional baseball. As more players try to take that initial step, Cohen said players he recruits are more developed than players 20 or 30 years ago. He said so many more players already are in strength and conditioning programs and many have hitting and/or pitching coaches. He said many teenagers also have better diets and are better students of the game. All of those things can at least in part be tied to the growth of showcase baseball, as more players try to be seen and to make an impression.
"Showcases and tournament play and all of that is going to continue to get better," Cohen said. "It is just the natural evolution of the sport and any sport."
Follow Dispatch sports editor Adam Minichino on Twitter @ctsportseditor.
Adam Minichino is the Sports Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.