Rasmus Brothers Keep It In The Family
Compiled by Alan Matthews
Tight-knit families are the underpinning of life in the Deep South. Folks there more often than not stick close to their roots, preserving the bond of the extended family.
Common interests in these circles run as deep as bloodlines themselves, and baseball was, is and always will be the fabric of the Rasmus household.
This spring, the common thread that has made Tony Rasmus and the oldest two of his four sons--Colby, a senior, and Cory, a junior--the talk of the town for years, spins far beyond the borders of Russell County, Ala. Russell County High debuts at No. 4 in the Preseason Baseball America/National High School Baseball Coaches Association Top 50. What was the best local baseball story since Frank Thomas from nearby Columbus, Ga., made it big with the White Sox, has blossomed into one of the most compelling tales in amateur baseball.
Anthony Robert Rasmus IV was born in Montgomery and bred in Phenix City, Ala., a town of approximately 30,000 located in Russell County on the Georgia-Alabama border. A hard-nosed middle infielder, he drew enough interest during his sophomore season at Enterprise State (Ala.) Junior College to be drafted in the 10th round of the January Phase in 1986 by the Angels.
His professional career was brief--just two seasons before a torn labrum spelled the end--but didn't lack in intrigue.
He reported to the Angels' short-season Northwest League affiliate in Salem, Wash., in 1987. It was during a road game at Bellingham, Wash., when he glanced into the stands to find one of the game's most celebrated prospects making company with his wife and son Colby, now a senior outfielder with a sharp, compact lefthanded swing.
"I look up and damn if Ken Griffey Jr. isn't cozied up to my wife with Colby sitting in his lap," recalls Tony.
Griffey was not in the Bellingham lineup that day but became part of the Rasmus legend nonetheless. "Some of that smooth stroke must have rubbed off on (Colby)," Tony says. "There's not another soul in my family that was lefthanded, so we always make the joke that he got it because he sat in Ken Griffey Junior's lap."
Tony returned to Phenix City to raise Colby and Cory, a righthanded-hitting third baseman who, like Colby, splits time on the mound as well. The two boys showed an advanced feel for the game at a young age and provided evidence that their skills were better than the average player's when they helped lead the Phenix City team to the Little League World Series in 1999.
After Colby struck out 13--with Cory catching--to beat North Carolina in the Southeast Regional Finals, the team knocked off Tom's River, N.J., for the national crown in Williamsport, Conn.
"It was the most amazing thing I had ever witnessed," said Tony, an assistant coach on the team.
Phenix City eventually lost 5-0 to Osaka, Japan in the championship game. Colby and Zack Martin had the only two hits against Japan's Kazuki Sumiyama.
"We got thousands of letters after that," Tony said. "It was something we'll always remember."
Following that memorable summer, many of the families from that team splintered. Martin's family moved across the Chattahoochee River to Columbus where Zack, an Auburn signee, played an integral role in Columbus High's Georgia Class 5A championship team last year. Another cog on the 1999 Little League team was Brandon Monk, who signed with Auburn after his family moved northeast to La Grange, Ga.
Despite the talent Tony's team at Russell County boasts, his sons are the only players from the Little League team on the Russell County roster.
"All us parents wanted to beat the other parents, we worked hard to beat the other one," Tony says. "After (1999) they moved elsewhere. We all wanted to be the big wheel."
Even Tony made a move, leaving Glenwood High, the private school that produced Braves righthander Tim Hudson in 1995, for Russell County, a public school that offered a higher salary as well as a head coaching position.
But Russell County High lacked many of the amenities Glenwood had, most notably a decent baseball field. "Four years ago, (our) field was nothing but dirt and rocks," Tony said. "You should've seen the mound. It was about nine inches lower than the plate."
Tony earned the support of the school's administration, which provided funding for improving the field conditions and building a batting cage and bullpen.
He's also assembled one of the nation's most complete teams. The Warriors' lineup features a mixture of speed, power and sound situational hitters, not to mention all the necessary intangibles.
"They've had some continuity in terms of playing with each other over the years," a National League area scout said. "They'll swing the bat, they're solid on the mound and they have great team chemistry. You can see that. It's a special group."
After taking home most valuable hitter honors at the 2004 World Wood Bat Fall Championship in Fort, Myers, Fla., in October, Colby packed on almost 15 pounds of muscle during the offseason. He batted .490-18-56 with 33 stolen bases as a junior, racking up 72 hits, the fourth-highest in Alabama history.
Case, a reserve catcher, and Cyle (pronounced Kyle) Rasmus are just freshmen but shouldn't be overlooked. Cyle, a third baseman, started as an eighth grader and hit .311. "He's just a little-bitty joker," says Tony of the 5-foot-8, 143-pound Cyle. "I tell the older guys if they had his competitiveness they'd be first rounders. He's like a little chihuahua."
Senior outfielder Kuyaunnis Miles and senior catcher David Browder, who have signed with Jefferson Davis (Ala.) JC, are sound defensively and give the lineup depth.
But where Russell County High separates itself from many of the other top teams in the country is on the mound. Although Tony never pitched much growing up, he picked up on many of the pitching tips his coach at Enterprise JC, Ronny Powell, passed along to Tony's teammates. Powell, currently the pitching coach at South Alabama, pitched for legendary coach Eddie Stanky at Enterprise.
"That was my basis," Tony says of Powell. "Everything I learned was from that joker."
While coaching a Dixie League team in 2001, Tony taught an undersized lefthander, Kasey Kiker, a changeup. Kiker grasped the instruction, prompting his father to transfer Kiker from Central High in Phenix City to Russell County as a freshman.
Kiker, who was arguably the top pitcher on USA Baseball's 2003 youth national team, enters the season as Russell County High's top pitcher and figures to be a high pick in the 2006 draft, thanks in part to Tony's teachings.
He topped out at 70 mph as an eighth grader but has steadily improved his velocity as he's matured. Kiker runs his fastball up into the mid-90s these days, has deft control of his changeup and spins a nasty breaking ball.
"Growing up, he had to know how to pitch. He couldn't just throw fastballs by people, and what it ended up doing is he learned how to throw a curveball and changeup for strikes," Tony said.
And now that Kiker has added velocity to his repertoire, he's a complete pitcher. "He went back asswards," Tony joked.
Cory's best tool is arm strength. Most scouts like his potential as a corner infielder or catcher, and his versatility is another attribute that makes the Warriors potent. He has touched the low-90s off the mound and will fall behind Kiker in the rotation this season. Colby will handle the closer's role, while junior shortstop/righthander Daniel Esparza, a transfer from Northside High in Columbus, throws in the high-80s and will also earn some innings on the mound.
While the Warriors are primed for a run at an Alabama and perhaps national crown this season, their road to prominence hasn't been bereft of bumps. In 2003, Russell County High compiled a 28-4 record and appeared to be one of the nation's best prep clubs entering 2004. Kiker and Cory were sophomores and Colby was a junior, but the team was beset with injuries and the season quickly unraveled.
In November 2003, Kiker broke his right collarbone in a four-wheeler accident. Doctors cleared him to play in February, but he re-fractured it while taking a swing in a preseason game, costing him most of the season. Cory tossed a no-hitter in the regular season opener but tweaked a muscle in his chest in the next game, costing him six weeks. The Warriors finished the year with a disappointing 30-15 record.
Tony has kept the crew away from the ATVs and focused on reaching their potential in Colby's senior season.
"I'll be disappointed if we didn't win the (state title)," Tony said.
But when kin surrounds you and practicing your passion takes up each afternoon in your hometown, disappointment is relative to the Rasmus family.