Chasing the dream: The highs and lows of professional baseball

Editor’s note: This is the first of a series of four articles about the rigorous endeavor to become a Major League baseball player. We spoke to scouts and college coaches and feature some talented athletes who had a taste of what it might take to be called a professional baseball player.

As they watch their favorite Major League baseball teams, it is the dream of many a young boy – and in recent days their dads – to someday grow into a strapping Major League ballplayer. Unfortunately genetics and heated competition usually dash those hopes against the rocks of reality.

In the wake of the triumphant signing of Hiland High grad and Kent State alum Luke Burch, one only has to look at the long and difficult road the wildly athletic Burch needed to navigate just to get drafted.

Luke Burch

If you’ve ever seen Burch play any sport, his athleticism strikes you immediately. Yet injuries and a college transfer caused the phenom to not only have to wait to be drafted until his senior season, but also until the ninth round as well. It is here we find the harsh truth that lies at the end of so many hopes and dreams: Your kid is not going to be a professional athlete.

I know of more than a few guys who have been thought of as being ripe for being drafted and never even got a contact. They’re too small, not athletic enough or can’t throw the ball through a wall. It takes a special person physically, but even more importantly it takes a special someone mentally and emotionally to go through what it takes to make it big.

You’ve heard of “it,” as in that guy has it. When an athlete walks onto the floor or the field, he or she is the one everybody notices immediately because he or she has that rare combination of athleticism and confidence that makes it look so easy and makes everyone else on the playing surface also realize their own dream may soon come to an end.

“You can usually tell which kid it is that you’re there to see even before the game starts just by watching them walk on the field,” Massillon native and current Houston Astros scout Nick Venuto said.

Venuto has a keen feel for what it takes for young players to make it big as he was drafted himself and spent some time in the minors before dedicating himself to finding talent to keep the pipeline filled. While there are plenty of talented players around, it takes someone with outstanding ability to get drafted or signed.

And that’s just to get into the system.

College of Wooster head coach Tim Pettorini has seen a number of great players come and go in his tenure, which has spanned three decades since 1982.

Although none of his players have ever cracked the majors, Rob Hatfield (1985, Pirates), Rob Piscetta (1987, Dodgers), Rob Peterson (1989, Pirates), Bill Brakeley (1989, Brewers), Jared Treadway (2002, Yankees) and Matthew Johnson (2010, Blue Jays) all played under Pettorini and have seen time in the Minor Leagues.

As difficult as it was for these players to advance through the ranks, it can be even more difficult for good players to even get that opportunity.

Pettorini had the poster child for great players who didn’t get a break: Rick Sforzo (1987), one of the better hitters the area has ever seen.

And as the game becomes filled with bigger, faster and more athletic players, the requirements for supreme athletes, not just good ballplayers, becomes even more critical.

“As far as intangibles go, I don’t think they matter to the scouts at all,” Pettorini said. “It’s all about the stopwatch and the radar gun. If you don’t hit the right number, they’re not interested.”

Venuto agrees. “People think it’s all about batting average, but it’s how they do everything: hit, field, throw and run,” he said. “Stats have become a huge part of the game, just like you saw in the movie ‘Moneyball.’ We’ll get a call about a kid who has great stats. Then we’ll go give him a look in person.”

With the availability in exposure through the internet, video and organizations that show off talent, Venuto said more players are being seen than ever before. “There are more kids getting drafted from small schools than there used to be. The competition isn’t usually as good, but you can generally tell if a player has the ability. If the kid is good enough, there are going to be some scouts there.”

So as astronomical paydays for professional athletes are becoming more prominent with the heightened popularity of sports and entertainment, parents are flooding the summer travel ball teams with cash and kids as colleges and universities make scholarships more readily available.

“The scouts are really shopping the showcases (such as PBR-paid events),” Pettorini said. “People are paying ridiculous amounts of money to play on these supposed powerhouse teams.”

These teams, while elevating the level of competition for some, basically are open to anyone who has marginal talent, enough cash and are willing to travel. But in the end it is where the top players get noticed and where the universities and professional organizations hunt for their prize.

“In the end I guess scouts are looking there,” Pettorini said. “Scouts aren’t really paying that much attention to small college and high school games. They case these events throughout the summer. These kids get seen, hoping to get a scholarship or signed. That’s the business.”

Next up: Matt Miller and Kendall Schlabach on the rise.

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