Georgia Turns Out 2010 Prep Class For The Ages

MARIETTA, Ga.—The players were not scattered around the outfield at the East Cobb baseball complex during the Memorial Day workout for major league scouts. They were clustered in groups and talking.

Most of the players—high school seniors—have known each other since they were 11, 12, and 13 years old and the biggest day of their lives—the Major League Baseball amateur draft—was approaching.

All at once, all together, this flock of Georgia prospects was on the cusp of a dream and they were sharing the moment, not worrying too much about shagging fly balls.

They could have been telling each other, "Thanks for getting me here."

"It's hard not to get better when you are facing these people, these kinds of hitters," said Will Kendall, a lefthander from Pope High in Marietta who signed with Auburn. "When you were younger you might have been the best pitcher on your team and you would face one of the other team's best players several times in a game.

"But when you are facing three, four, five of them on the same team in the same game, you learn how to pitch and you get better. It sure helped me."

Will's father, Scott, pointed out one player after another by name as they came to the plate. He knew what high school they attended, their skills, and where they are going to college if they do not sign a professional contract. He came to one player on the field, frowned, and said, "I don't know that kid."

Of course not. He was a pitcher from Chattanooga.

Stock Rising

The Atlanta metro area has become a prime harvesting area for big league teams.

There are everyday players galore who are premium draft picks, like Delino Deshields of Woodward Academy, Chevez Clarke (Marietta), Zach Alvord (South Forsyth), Christopher Hawkins (North Gwinnett) and Jake Skole (Blessed Trinity).

There are plenty of pitchers, such as Cam Bedrosian (East Coweta), Matthew Grimes (Mill Creek) and Andrew Smith (Roswell).

There is talent around the rest of the state, too, like Kaleb Cowart a righthander/thirdbaseman (Cook High, Adel), outfielder Kevin Jordan (Union Grove High, McDonough) and outfielder Aaron Shipman (Brooks County High, Quitman).

"It will be a good year in Georgia with a lot of kids drafted," Braves scouting director Tony DeMacio. "Georgia has progressively gotten better and better over the years and it has become one of the better areas in the country now. That is a tribute to all the coaches in the state. When so many kids get drafted out of the state and do well, it creates more interest in baseball."

The players were rivals in the spring high school season, but comrades on summer teams where they would play 90 games and travel together week after week. Bonds were formed.

"These are kids that you made food for on the road with the travel team, and helped with their laundry," said Sandra Drinks-Griffin, the mother of Trey Griffin, an outfielder from King High and the DeKalb County player of the year. "Some of these kids that will be drafted I saw when they were 10 years old and we watched them grow up. The moms would travel and help take care of them. So we got close."

Many parents and players credit the East Cobb Baseball program for the development of talent because it brought elite players together. The program has been criticized for its cost in the younger age groups and tournament fees that are higher than elsewhere in Atlanta.

But it can be a worthwhile investment for players who make it to the top shelf. They flock to the complex, which is 20 miles north of downtown Atlanta. Jason Heyward made the trek from the south side of Atlanta and considered the East Cobb vital to his development. African-American players from the south side of Atlanta, such as Jason Heyward, have made the trek and considered it vital in their development.

"These kids start out at a pretty young age playing very competitive baseball and by the time they are in high school, they have significant opportunities to play at a very high level during the summer," Scott Kendall said. "Subsequently, the scouts and MLB teams know this and my feeling is they will give an East Cobb kid the benefit of the doubt over other kids, knowing the level of competition they have been playing in as well as some of the coaching they have received from the top East Cobb coaches."

Braves Draw A Crowd

Georgia Tech coach Danny Hall said the spigot for amateur baseball in Georgia was opened by the Braves in the 1970s and '80s. The team appeared on the Superstation, TBS, and the whole state had access to baseball, even if it was just through TV.

When the Braves organization became a juggernaut in the '90s and started a string of 14 division titles, Hall said the spigot opened even more.

"That created a lot of interest in baseball and then the population growth in the Atlanta area just exploded," Hall said. "And the high school programs take baseball very seriously. The summer programs are everywhere. There are a lot of kids in our state who have been playing baseball since they were little.

"As a result of that you see a bunch of guys who are developed in their baseball skills."

The essence of baseball in the Atlanta area can be seen in Will Kendall, the tall, lefthanded pitcher from Pope.

His fastball sits at 88 mph, modest compared to some hard-throwers in the draft. When he worked out for professional scouts on Memorial Day with just a catcher, he did not dazzle and light up the radar gun. Yet Kendall is trusted by the scouts because he has faced quality hitters throughout his high school career. His command is better than his stuff, a tribute to the level of baseball in the area.

"You better be good at what you do playing baseball in this area," Kendall said. "The hitters know your tendencies and they adjust and you know their tendencies and you adjust. It makes you better."

Ray Glier is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.