Prep Class Of 2007 Gets Positive Early Reviews

JOPLIN, Mo.–The town of Joplin got a taste of the USA Baseball experience when the junior national team trials were held here in 1996, 1997 and 2000. For a week each summer, two dozen of the nation’s best high school players met in Joplin for a series of workouts and scrimmages, designed as a stage for the final tryout for the junior national team before its international competition.

The community embraced the event, offering host families for the players and attending the games during the trials as if they were Joplin’s own World Series.

The support showed by Joplin’s community and local leaders persuaded USA Baseball to bring its larger, more celebrated event–the Tournament of Stars–to Joplin in 2001, and the event found a home here.

For the past six years, eight teams have gathered in the town of 46,000, located in the southwest corner of the state, for a weeklong competition that has become one of the most entertaining summer amateur events in the nation. It’s not the Cape Cod League, but in many ways–the revelry surrounding the games and players, the hundreds of scouts and college coaches who attend the event–at least for one week in June, it takes on a similar complexion.

The tournament serves as a preliminary tryout for the junior national team, and play is rich with competition. With that foundation, the players shed the showcase mentality and the event takes shape as an intense, spirited series of games.

Picture Perfect

Joplin’s Joe Becker stadium is a setting conducive for that atmosphere. The 93-year-old park oozes character. Its eccentricity–complete with plenty of unconventional sightlines and a grass embankment in right field–would best be described with a creative tongue and clever wit, someone like Joplin’s most famous native, poet Langston Hughes.

Hundreds of fans fill the stands in the evenings and the park is abuzz with activity, though they were soaking it all in with a hint of sorrow. Beginning next June, the event will move from Joplin to Cary, N.C., where USA Baseball will officially open its new $10 million training facility.

The list of players who have competed in Joplin is long and distinguished. Chad Billingsley, Jeremy Bonderman, Scott Kazmir, Joe Mauer, Lastings Milledge, B.J. Upton and Delmon Young are just a few of the alumni. And the fans in Joplin will likely have plenty of stories to retell from the memorable crop of players from the final event held in the foothills of the Ozarks.

Curtain Call

This year’s tournament was highlighted by pitching prospects. Righthander Michael Main, one of the hardest throwers from the high school Class of 2007, was up to 97 mph in a showcase appearance in Fayetteville, Ark., earlier this summer, but pitched near 91-93 mph in his first outing at Joplin. He allowed three earned runs off four hits in four innings, although he did strike out six.

Outfielder Evan Chambers (Lakeland, Fla., High) turned around a 94 mph fastball from Main (DeLand, Fla., High) and ripped it over the left-field fence for a home run. Main’s stuff is electric, but he wasn’t as sharp as he was three nights earlier in Arkansas. His command was average, and the ball Chambers hit was waist high and right over the heart of the plate. Main regained his composure relatively well, blowing away Matt Dominguez (Chatsworth, Calif., High) with another mid-90s fastball to end the inning.

Main was one of 18 pitchers to make the initial cut and earn invitations to the junior national team trials in September in Atlanta. The high school draft Class of 2007 appears to be loaded with high-ceiling arms, and that was apparent in Joplin. A least 13 of the 18 pitchers on the preliminary roster have registered fastballs in excess of 90 mph.

“There was certainly a very good collection of 88-91 guys that throw a couple of pitches for strikes,” said Ray Darwin, who oversees the selection of the junior team. “We feel that the depth is pretty strong.”

The challenge for Team USA this year will be the extended interval between its initial tryout and the tournament in Cuba. How the pitchers who made the first cut will perform in three months–after a full summer schedule–is unpredictable.

“We’re going to take the six best arms,” junior national team head coach Jason Hisey said. “There are going to be a lot of good questions to answer in Atlanta, and we’re looking to answering them.”

The junior national team has not won a gold medal in its annual international competition since 1999, when Mauer led it to gold in Taiwan.