CHICAGO—Saturday marked the third consecutive year the Under Armour All-America Game powered by Baseball Factory was played at Wrigley Field in Chicago, a good conclusion to a four-day event that provided some of the best high school players in the country with a unique and unforgettable experience. Thirty six players arrived in Chicago on Wednesday and were outfitted with Under Armour equipment and clothing before getting a tour of Wrigley Field. After the tour they had a banquet at the stadium and listened to Cal and Billy Ripken speak about their experiences in baseball.
On Thursday the players worked with younger athletes at a Ripken Camp, before taking the field themselves and getting instruction from the Ripkens, as well as several other coaches with professional experience, at University of Illinois-Chicago's field that essentially has Sears Tower as a batter's eye. After the day at UIC, the players headed down I-90 to U.S. Cellular to watch the White Sox and Twins battle for the top spot in the American League Central.
The players returned to UIC on Friday for the event's workout day, which was attended by approximately 75 scouts and a handful of college recruiters. For dinner, the players, event staff and others dined at one of Chicago's landmarks—Harry Caray's Italian Steakhouse.
"When I got the call for this, it was one of the best moments of my life," Connor Castellano said. "Some of these guys out here will only play on it once, but some of them will play on it 1,000 times. So, it's living the dream, basically."
The experience was extra special for outfielder Dwight Smith Jr. from McIntosh High in Peachtree City, Ga., because his father, Dwight Smith Sr., came up with the Cubs and played for them from 1989 to 1993.
"I'm at a loss for words. I got a little emotional coming up to the stadium and I just told him, 'Son, I'm so proud of you for the hard work you've done. You've been a good kid and you've listened to me and you can play the game.' Thank God he's able to play the game and I'm able to teach, because I can't fix cars. But I can fix a swing."
"It's definitely an experience to remember," Smith Jr. said. "I met a lot of new guys that will be friends for life and hopefully I'll see them at the next level, wherever that may be."
The younger Smith said he had been to Wrigley before, but it was when he was very young and he doesn't remember it. But, he actually took his very first steps as a toddler in the Cubs clubhouse.
"His mother dropped him off one day and he was at the time where he could hold onto the stroller and barely stand up," Smith Sr. said. "(Andre) Dawson and (Ryne) Sandburg and (Shawon) Dunston was playing with him when I was getting taped and, all of a sudden, he stood up and started taking his first steps. . . So, he took his first step in that clubhouse and now he's going to take a big step here, hopefully on the way to a beautiful career one day."
The fanfare climaxed Saturday morning as the clouds parted and desirable weather rolled in for the pregame festivities. Players went through the usual batting practice and infield/outfield sessions before eight of them—Bubba Starling, Rookie Davis, Mason Robbins, Tyler Greene, Chris McFarland, Jacob Anderson, Dante Bichette Jr. and Connor McKay—battled in a home run derby. Robbins and Anderson were the finalists, with Anderson winning the contest after Robbins failed to homer. Anderson hit a home run early, which clinched the win, but he finished out his round and nearly put a ball on Waveland Avenue in left-center field.
"I was feeling nice and loose, just keeping my hands in on the ball," Anderson said. "I was just looking to get my hands through, keep my hands extended and hit the ball hard."
The game then got underway at 1 p.m. CST, with MLB Network broadcasting live. It got off to a hot start with local prospect Nick Burdi, playing for the National team, striking out the side in the top of the first. Burdi attends Downer's Grove High, about 25 miles west of Chicago.
The American team put a two-spot up in the second inning when Robbins reached on a single, stole second, advanced to third on a throwing error and finally scored when outfielder Brandon Nimmo doubled to the left-field corner and advanced to third when the relay throw got away from the cut-off man. Nimmo scored moments later on a wild pitch to make it 2-0, American.
Nimmo then drove in Robbins again with a single through the left side in the third inning to make it 3-0. The American team blew it open in the seventh when National righthander Jerrick Suiter surrendered four walks and a couple of hits that plated four runs.
There were plenty of raw tools on display, but a lot of crooked numbers in undesirable stat categories. While both teams combined to strike out 29, there were also 11 walks and eight hit batters.
Nimmo and Burdi were named MVPs of their respective teams. Nimmo went 2-for-4 with two RBIs, two runs scored and a walk. Burdi struck out all three batters he faced, using a 91-94 mph fastball, 79-83 changeup and an 85 slider.
"It's awesome," Nimmo said. "These pitchers here are awesome. You kind of have to guess and hope you hit it. Thankfully I hit a few. This whole experience was amazing."
CONTRIBUTING: Conor Glassey
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