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Talent Sprouts on Ivy Vines

Harvard's Crockett, Yale's Steitz add to league's draft history

By Andrew Tripaldi

BOSTON–For Ben Crockett and Jon Steitz, the draft is the easy part.

As junior righthanders for Harvard and Yale, they have excelled in the Ivy League over the last three years. They also have waged war against the stereotypes that surround college prospects from the Northeast, most notably those that come from the purported lack of playing time because of harsh weather and the lackluster competition.

With their seasons concluded and pedigrees established, Crockett and Steitz can now sit back, relax and wait until the draft. Both are projected to be early picks, possibly in the first round, and neither pitcher is bashful about his feelings concerning the draft.

"It would definitely be a big deal to get drafted high, as high as possible," Steitz says. "It’s very exciting. I am raring and ready to go. I have had a hard time waiting."

So why aren’t scouts wary of these two Ivy League pitchers who, despite their imposing physical appearances (both stand 6-foot-3; Steitz weighs 205 pounds, Crockett checks in at 200) have spent three-quarters of their seasons battling Mother Nature as well as opposing hitters?

"The fact is the weather conditions are not that great, so the cards are stacked against players from the Northeast," says John Brickley, a Reds area scout based in Melrose, Mass. "But if you look back at the track record and the history of the draft, there are a lot of pitchers that have come out of the Northeast, moved on and developed."

Scouts have had Steitz in their sights before. The Angels drafted him in the 44th round in 1998 out of the Hopkins School in New Haven, Conn. Just 17, Steitz decided to attend college. It turned out to be a brilliant decision.

Steitz stayed in New Haven and enrolled at Yale. His decision was partly influenced by his parents Joan and Tom, who are both professors of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at the school.

In addition to playing in front of family and friends and receiving a first-rate education, Steitz was afforded the opportunity to play for John Stuper, the Yale baseball coach and former major league righthander who was a key contributor on the 1982 World Series champion Cardinals.

"He has pitched at every level, and has been successful," Steitz says. "He’s got a World Series ring, and you have to respect someone who has something as great as that. We both like to win a lot. Sometimes we butt heads because he expects more of me and I expect more of myself."

Stuper immediately threw his new recruit into the fire. Steitz was Yale’s Opening Day starter in his freshman year, and his debut summarizes his college career–he threw a one-hitter with 12 strikeouts in a blinding snowstorm.

After the quick first impression, Steitz struggled over the next two seasons. He finished the 1999 season at 3-5, 7.77. He improved the following year, going 2-5, 5.50 as a sophomore, but had a long way to go to fulfill his major league dreams.

Eager to improve, he worked one-on-one with Stuper, who taught him how to throw his slider and eliminated bad habits that were hampering his pitching.

"It was a real easy pitch to learn," Steitz says. "I needed another pitch I could throw for a strike. No matter what you do, you have to be able to throw a couple of pitches for strikes, unless you pitch 100 miles an hour, which I don’t.

"My foot was not perpendicular to the plate and the hitters could actually see the number on my back. I also had a bad hip turn. So my pitches would either go up and in or low and away. We took care of that."

Steitz’ hard work and dedication reached a happy confluence this past season, when he went 2-4 2.66 for a 12-22 club, cementing his prospect status. He also struck out 81 and walked 39 in 64 innings, giving up just 49 hits.

Stuper says his ace pitcher, whose fastball has been clocked between 91-94 mph, will be able to hit 95-97 with his fastball in the future. And his slider, now thrown in the 83-85 range, could pick up velocity as well.

"John is the real deal; he has a great live arm and a nasty fastball," Stuper says. "He has really progressed this past year. I think his future might be in the bullpen because he can throw every day. His arm is very resilient.

"Since he has played in the Northeast most of the time, I think he can be a diamond in the rough. When he gets into professional baseball, and he doesn’t have to worry about academics, he will flourish even more."

The same may be said for Crockett, though unlike his Ivy League counterpart he was not drafted out of high school, toiling unnoticed at Masconomet Regional High in Topsfield, Mass.

But after visiting Harvard on a recruiting trip, Crockett was happy to commit, realizing he too could get the best of both worlds.

"No matter how well you do, especially in the Northeast, you’re going to want to prove yourself," Crockett says. "Harvard gave me the opportunity to prove myself. If I went to a bigger program, like Stanford, I probably would have not gotten the playing time at the beginning."

Following a 5-1, 4.88 freshman season for the Crimson, Crockett went to play in the Alaska League during the summer of 1999 to gain additional experience.

After his sophomore campaign, when he improved to 4-4, 4.01, he stayed a lot closer to home, playing in the Cape Cod League in 2000. Crockett was a league all-star, going 5-1, 2.95 with 66 strikeouts and just 13 walks in 61 innings.

He credits former North Carolina coach Mike Roberts, his coach on the Wareham team and now athletic director at Florida Southern, with enhancing his repertoire.

"He worked on a lot of the mental aspects with me," says Crockett, who plans to play for Wareham this summer if he doesn’t sign. "He instilled a lot of confidence in me right from the start. He felt I could face any adversity."

The entire experience helped Crockett considerably.

"It was a tremendous tool to have because it’s opened a lot of doors," Crockett says. "If you perform well you will stand out, even if you’re not from a big-time program, because of all the scouts that attend the games. And there wasn’t a lot of pressure on me because I was the ‘Harvard guy.’ "

Crockett’s 2001 season could not have ended on a higher note. He tossed a perfect game on April 29, striking out 14 in Harvard’s 10-0 win over Dartmouth. He finished this season with a 4-4, 4.04 record and had 59 strikeouts and eight walks in 56 innings.

"Ben has made two jumps in his career," Harvard coach Joe Walsh says. "The first was from his senior year in high school to his freshman year. The second was from his sophomore year to his junior year. Going to the next level will be another jump for him.

"He has not peaked by any means. He is a very interesting prospect because he will definitely improve, especially with his velocity."

Scouts agree. Most say Crockett and Steitz are just scratching the surface of what they may become as professionals, and they are not afraid to voice their opinions.

"One scout said to me, ‘You have more movement on your fastball than anyone I have seen across the country,’ " Steitz says.

Brickley sees the potential as well.

"Both are bright kids, just not in terms of book smarts, which is obvious because of where they go to school, but because of their ability to make adjustments during the game," Brickley says. "They each have a strong mental edge and are students of the game who learn from their mistakes and will continue to better themselves because of their own motivation."

The publicity is not hurting their chances either. Both Crockett and Steitz were featured on a segment of Peter Gammons’ Diamond Notes on ESPN. "I could not have expected that in my wildest dreams," Steitz says.

For both Ivy Leaguers, the best may be yet to come.

Andrew Tripaldi is a free-lance writer based in Boston.

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