For the third consecutive year, the Under Armour All-America Game powered by Baseball Factory will be played at Wrigley Field in Chicago. The 2010 event is loaded with promising high school players once again and two in particular already have a connection to the game. Catcher Greg Bird and righthander Bryan Brickhouse were teammates of 2009 participants. Bird was a batterymate of Kevin Gausman while Brickhouse’s best friend was Jameson Taillon. Like Taillon and Gausman, Bird and Brickhouse are no strangers to playing in front of scouts and will perform on a national stage on Aug. 14.
Bird Is Hard To Keep Off The Field
When people visit the Denver-area home of Grandview High catcher Greg Bird and ask about the empty cast on a table near the door, Bird’s family likes to tell a story.
They explain that Bird, who broke two fingers sliding into third base midway through his junior season, went into his garage one day and cut the cast off himself because he was dead-set on playing out the season.
The story is slightly exaggerated. Bird did continue to play, but only as a designated hitter, and the cast only came off once the fingers were completely healed. Listen to Bird talk about playing the sport he loves and it’s easy to see why so many people have believed it.
This summer Bird has been burning the baseball candle at both ends. From June 17-20 Bird was at Tropicana Field in Tampa Bay participating in the 2010 Perfect Game National Showcase. Just three days later Bird traveled to the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, N.C. to compete in the 2010 Tournament of Stars. In early August, Bird was in the Area Code Games and now he’ll play in the Under Armour All-America Game.
For many high school players, the sheer number of games played and travel demands would be enough to wear them out. But for Bird, it has been one of the most rewarding and exciting experiences in his life.
“It’s a big commitment and it takes a lot of time, but to play with the best people in the country is an awesome opportunity,” Bird said. “I truly love baseball. I am sure you hear a lot of people say that but I wouldn’t want to be doing anything else right now.”
Colorado is not usually the first place scouts look for talent, but Bird began to appear on their radar when they made the trip to Denver to watch Bird’s batterymate in righthander Kevin Gausman.
The sixth-round pick of the Dodgers in June, Gausman routinely sat 92-94 mph with his fastball. Catching that type of velocity is a daunting task for catchers at any level and Gausman said the adjustment for Bird was difficult in the beginning.
“I think catching that type of velocity is one of the hardest things to do in the game and the first couple months he had trouble blocking fastballs,” Gausman said. “But from last summer to this spring he worked hard and did a great job adjusting. When he got hurt it was hard for me because our backup catcher really didn’t have any experience catching me. There were probably five or six times per game where if Greg was catching I would have had a strike called or would have had a blocked ball.”
Bird considers himself lucky for having the chance to catch such a high-profile pitcher because it helped him get noticed and it raised his profile because he showed he was capable of handling velocity. But despite his 6-foot-4, 220-pound frame and his experience with Gausman, some scouts think he profiles better as a corner infielder.
There are questions about his footwork and his catch and release behind the plate, and Bird played first base and designated hitter primarily at Tournament of Stars. Bird said he loves catching because he likes being in control of the game, but he ultimately doesn’t care where he plays, he just wants the chance to get on the field.
Regardless of what the future holds for Bird defensively, the reason most top college programs have come calling is because of his impressive ability at the dish. Despite his injury, Bird hit .660 with 13 home runs as a junior and was even intentionally walked six times in one game. Grandview head coach Dean Adams said Bird is “by far the best hitter I have ever coached and seen” and called him “a teaching tool for other kids” because of how fundamentally sound he is.
After impressing a smattering of scouts and crosscheckers at Tropicana Field with a long triple off a 90 mph fastball from top prospect Tyler Beede, Bird used his exceptional plate discipline, great hands, and a simple swing to make an impression in Cary as well.
Although his Dixie team struggled, Bird led the tournament with five walks and an .857 slugging percentage in just 12 at-bats. He also ended with a .429 batting average and two sacrifice flies, proving to be the team’s most dangerous hitter.
“I don’t really look at the national rankings and all that stuff. Of course I have heard some players’ names but I really just go up there and hit,” Bird said. “Everyone here can play baseball and its just a ton of fun to go out there and compete and prove yourself against this kind of caliber player.”
In addition to being able to catch Gausman, Bird’s father Jim said his son was fortunate that he got to see his teammate go through the rigors of recruiting. Adams said he has already heard from coaches from some of the top programs in the SEC and the Pac-10. But Bird remains largely non-committal about where he wants to play.
“When the draft and college rolls around, I will make a decision, but right now I am just trying to finish up this summer strong,” Bird said. “I don’t think there is a wrong option, I just want to play baseball.”
Brickhouse Takes Over Ace Role From Taillon
Hours before he took the mound at The Woodlands High, where countless radar-gun-lugging scouts and media members turned an amateur Texas baseball game into a weekly circus act, righthander Jameson Taillon joined Bryan Brickhouse in some video-gaming.
Taillon and Brickhouse, friends since elementary school, devoted themselves to a game day routine involving homemade cornbread, pizza, sweet tea, “Black Hawk Down” and “Nazi Zombies”.
Taillon, the No. 2 overall pick in June’s draft, was the more coveted prospect on the field. When the two held controllers in their hands, however, Brickhouse had the edge.
Outside of Taillon himself, nobody knows better than Brickhouse what it takes to be the best high school arm in the nation. And with Taillon gone, Brickhouse is ready to be The Woodlands’ ace as a senior next spring.
“I’ve seen him develop and grow over the years,” said Brickhouse, a North Carolina verbal commit. “People think it just comes naturally for guys, but you have to work so hard to become the type of player he is.”
Pitching instructor David Evans, who has worked with Taillon and Brickhouse throughout high school, noticed how close the two were and tried to schedule their sessions so they could work together.
Evans would place them three feet apart during practice so they could serve as an extra pair of eyes in games. If one pitcher’s mechanics were off, the other gave him adjustments in the dugout.
“They truly were concerned with the best interest of the other,” said Evans, who also works with Stetson Allie and Scott Kazmir. “They always wanted to see the other person succeed. When I watched one pitch, I would go to the other for an evaluation, and they were almost always spot-on. It’s really cool to see two talented kids who are such genuine friends.”
When evaluating Brickhouse, Evans and Taillon give the same report. He’s powerful, has good offspeed pitches and is tough on the mound—a product of playing football.
“When you see a kid throw for so long, you see what he should be doing and shouldn’t be doing,” Taillon said. “Bryan knows me. I know Bryan. It’s a lot of fun to be teammates with someone like that.”
While watching Taillon the last couple of years, Brickhouse noticed his friend’s poise on the mound. Regardless of who he faced, Taillon took the same approach.
“He won’t back down to anyone because he always knows his stuff is good enough,” Brickhouse said. “That confidence is huge.”
Taillon grabbed the headlines last year with his 6-foot-6 frame and mid-90s fastball, but Brickhouse has developed three good pitches. His curveball and slider both have good life to them, Evans said, with Brickhouse relying on the latter to rack up strikeouts.
Evans said many of his clients show up, listen to his advice and then go home to relax. But Brickhouse studies. He brings a notepad and writes shorthand during sessions to remember every detail.
“Where he’s really separated himself has been his ability to consistently throw his offspeed stuff for strikes,” Evans said. “That comes from doing a lot of extra work outside of practice.”
But Brickhouse is not a finished product. He occasionally gets too excited during games and, in an effort to blow batters away with his heater, Brickhouse falls apart mechanically.
Brickhouse also said he wants to develop his changeup. As it is, the pitch has little movement and is only 5 mph slower than his fastball. Evans is training him to rely less on his legs when throwing the change, something that comes unnaturally to him.
But if he can take a little more off, the ball will dip more when approaching the plate, making the changeup a more deceptive pitch.
And because he’s spent most of his life playing football and baseball, Brickhouse has not performed much sport-specific training. But he’s quitting football, so Taillon started bringing him along to the Texas Sports Medicine Center, where about 150 high school and college pitchers train.
The Medical Center is known throughout Texas for its focus on pitching efficiency. Players are pushed in group workouts, where they build flexibility and strength by performing balancing drills, band exercises and short-spurt sprints.
Taillon credited his growth as a pitcher to the Medical Center, and Brickhouse will start working out there four times a week this fall. By the time the spring season rolls around, he will be more prepared than ever.
“These kids have so much confidence coming out of here,” said Dennis Fay, coordinator of the Medical Center’s Sports Advantage program. “When you look across the field before games you know most of those other 17-year-old kids aren’t working as hard as you.”
And Brickhouse knows what that confidence does for a young pitcher.
“I can’t tell you how much I learned from him,” Brickhouse said, referring to Taillon. “I saw him handle the hype and saw him pitch with tons of scouts there. Just seeing that helped me so much.”