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How The ‘3D Sweets’ Salvaged Their 2020 Travel Ball Season In A Unique Way

The year of 2020 was anything but normal.

For many players, the 2020 season and the coronavirus pandemic responsible for wiping it away represented nothing but lost opportunities.

For most high school seniors, it meant the last chance to play baseball with their childhood friends was taken away. For college and pro-caliber players, it meant lost development time. Or a missed chance to land a scholarship or impress big league scouts to improve their draft stock.

For everyone—regardless of ability or age—it was largely a season, and a year, of loss.

But for Southern California prep Thatcher Hurd it was also a year of discovery.

At the time, the junior was committed to UC Santa Barbara as a catcher. He pitched occasionally, but was mostly a reliever with a big arm who would throw a few innings here and there—and throw as hard as he could—for his team. When the 2020 season was canceled, Hurd started to realize during bullpen sessions with his brother that his future just might be brighter on the opposite side of the battery.

“I just really started gravitating toward pitching,” Hurd said. “I thought it was a perfect time to be in a controlled environment and just really hone the craft. And I fell in love with it.”

Throughout the summer and fall, Hurd improved on the mound as he focused exclusively on pitching. He enjoyed the competitiveness that came with challenging one batter after another and felt comfortable within the rigors of a pitcher’s routine.

Scouts took note, and Hurd entered the 2021 season as a top 100 prospect in the draft class.

“He is a guy to watch who could jump up,” one scout said last winter. “He is not there yet, but if the velocity comes and he has a good season he could go pretty good. It wouldn’t surprise me if he had a Quinn Priester ascent with a good offseason.”

Comparing Hurd to the Pirates’ 2019 first-round pick—the first high school pitcher off the board—is high praise. But as the year crept on and the pandemic continued to rage around the country, apprehension started to creep in.

What if 2020 happened all over again?

That fear was perhaps especially felt for players on the West Coast, where the safety guidelines were stricter than other areas of the country like the Southeast, where tournaments and showcases continued like normal.

“It was pretty hard,” said Washington outfielder Malakhi Knight, thinking back to the lost 2020 season. “You know, everything shut down. The gym shut down, all of the batting cages shut down. I had to just focus on myself and self-motivate myself.”

Knight, a prominent outfielder in the 2021 draft class, played travel ball with a number of other high-profile players from the Pacific Northwest, including 2021 righthander Max Debiec and 2022 righthander and infielder JR Ritchie. The players knew in November their 2021 season would at the very least be delayed.

Most places in the region were still closed or restricted because of Covid-19, and players began wondering if they were going to lose another season of development, exposure and the joy of playing the game they all love.

“A lot of the kids were getting depressed,” said Ian Ritchie, JR’s father and a partner in Alliance Baseball, which owns Baseball America. “Sitting around and stuck in Covid and to be honest, feeling like they were going to fall behind all of the guys (around the country) who were getting ready for college or their senior years and the draft and stuff. And there was a lot of, honestly, depression and anxiety and not knowing . . . For these kids it’s not fair—they’ve been trying too long and chasing their dreams.”

So Ian Ritchie, and Max Debiec’s father Stan, wondered if they could figure out a solution. Perhaps Covid-19 created an environment with the kind of possibilities not found in a normal year. With students around the country already acclimated to online school, the new norm for high schoolers, what would stop them from getting a group of players together and heading down south for a month to play baseball every day?

Ian started asking around.

“Hey, you know, this might sound totally crazy,” he said, “but what if we were able to rent a really, really big house, and take a really awesome group of kids to Arizona and play baseball and kind of control our own destiny?”

Hurd already had some experience turning a bad situation into something positive. Why not do it again?

“A total silver lining to Covid,” Hurd said, chuckling. “Obviously this wouldn’t even be possible in a normal year.”

To pull off a plan like this, connections are required.

It just so happens there was a perfect man for the job: Dominic Robinson.

Robinson, who owns 3D Sports Performance and trains athletes, has been wanting to do something similar for four years. A former two-sport athlete at Florida State, Robinson previously coached college football before moving to the Phoenix area, where he has spent time as a trainer.

At times he would have athletes come train for a week here, a week there. Nothing much more extended than that. Robinson thought about holding a camp during Christmas break, but nothing materialized. The logistics always seemed to be just a bit too complicated.

So when Ian Ritchie called him, he was overjoyed.

“When he reached out to me, I couldn’t even contain myself with excitement,” Robinson said. “Because like I said, this was four years in the making for me. As (Ritchie) is talking through some of the thoughts, the way we were symbiotically connecting without ever having to have a conversation in terms of our thoughts on this—it was just so exciting to go, ‘Wow, this is something we can really do.’

“The timing of this is right, for the first time.”

With Robinson running 3D Sports and several of the players from the Northwest playing on the Sweets Baseball Club travel team, the players called themselves the 3D Sweets.

The two decided Ritchie would focus on getting a house for the players, while Robinson would focus his efforts almost exclusively on the baseball side. With Ritchie making sure players were getting their schoolwork done and not destroying the house, Robinson would be able to handle the logistics of setting up games, scheduling practices and keeping the players on a training program.

And that was certainly a challenge.

“We knew, one of the big conversations that we had early was, ‘Hey, we are going to screw some of this up.’ ” Robinson said. “Nothing like this has ever been done. We are borrowing from a template that doesn’t exist. We are going to forget some things. There are going to be some things that are going to fall short. We just have to be able to be flexible and handle it.”

Robinson’s connections around the Phoenix area allowed him to put together games against local high schools in Arizona and opened the doors to facilities where players could go to hit, throw or work out. When scheduling problems arose because of Covid-19 issues with would-be opponents, Robinson would have to quickly figure out the next move.

In the middle of one game, Robinson heard from a coach who had to cancel a game the next day because of Covid-19. Before the final out, Robinson had reached out to another school, scheduled a game, locked down details for batting practice and alerted all of the scouts in the area to the change.

While Robinson was in charge of the logistics, the 3D Sweets also had an expert helping manage the pitching workload and schedules for many arms who were just ramping up for the season. That expert was Kevin Gunderson, who was familiar with almost every player on the team and previously helped train Phillies 2020 first-rounder Mick Abel.

“I was very, very cautious,” Gunderson said, “because this last year has been so up and down, and the kids’ throwing programs and game stuff has been so up and down that it was extremely critical we didn’t get too far ahead of ourselves and fall into the excitement trap of wanting to go out and do more than what our bodies really wanted us to do.”

That concern was warranted, especially when scouting crowds started growing from 30 to 40 and more, with front office officials as high as vice presidents showing up to games.

“You put a bunch of people behind the backstop with a bunch of radar guns, you know it’s tough for young kids to kind of say, ‘OK, I am going to really stay within myself,’ ” Gunderson said. “But I commend the kids, they did a phenomenal job of sticking to their routines.”

A typical day in the Arizona house for the players varied depending on what sort of online classes they had, or whether the player was a hitter or pitcher.

For Max Debiec, that meant waking up and hopping on Zoom for online classes from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. After that, it was typically off to practice at a local field—wherever Robinson was able to find one for that day—or to a local high school, like Pinnacle or Hamilton High, for games against some of the better teams in the area. Debiec estimates there were around 60 scouts in attendance for the Hamilton game.

“At practices we would sometimes screw around, just being kids and having fun,” Debiec said. “But on game days we would really lock in and just mentally get prepared and try to win. We wanted to win every game. We wanted to show them what Northwest talent we could bring into Arizona.”

When there weren’t practices or games, Debiec and others might go into the backyard to work out. Ritchie had driven essentially an entire weight room down in a U-Haul so the players had dumbbells, squat racks, wrist weights—you name it—at their disposal.

Other players were doing classwork through Running Start, a Washington program that lets 11th and 12th graders take online college courses. That meant more flexible hours and gave players more opportunity to get work in during the day.

Knight was one of those players. He typically got breakfast around 10 a.m. and did a bit of homework before heading across the street to get some swings in at Yankees outfielder Aaron Hicks’ batting cage.

“He gave us his gate code, so I would go over there at like 11:00 or 11:30, go hit for 30 minutes to an hour and come back and do some more homework,” Knight said.

Players also had 24/7 access to the Arizona World of Baseball, where they could get more time in the cages if they weren’t busy trying to take each others’ money in late-night poker games.

“We have a lot of resources and it’s been really nice,” Knight said.

Perhaps one of the biggest resources was having Ritchie’s wife Viktoria and another parent, Greg Fossum, help coordinate food for the entire house. Fossum is a restaurant owner familiar with preparing food for groups of people. He would go on Costco runs and make sure there were 12 big water jugs at the house weekly to help keep everyone hydrated.

“They would make this huge spread of food, steaks and baked potatoes,” Ritchie said. “But my wife takes a lot of pride in it. Between her and (Fossum) the first three weeks it was critical to really get an understanding of how much they eat, portion control, the timing of it all. Now it’s pretty easy.”

While many meals were taken care of for them, the players were responsible for a rotating list of chores around the house. According to all of the adults involved, this was one of the additional benefits of the trip to Arizona.

The players took on more responsibility for themselves and started to see what life would be like in college or professional ball, when they would have to do things for themselves—but in a forgiving environment.

“In this house, you’re allowed to make a mistake and fail and we teach you how to do it,” Ritchie said.

There were house rules that everyone had to follow such as no drinking, no vaping, no scouts or agents in the house and lights out at midnight.

“We really tried to create a lot of structure, so the boys could thrive and get a taste of what it’s going to be like when they get to college and are on their own,” Ritchie said.

Thirty-six total players were involved, with some players staying for the entire process and others coming in for a week or just to pitch a game or two. In all, the 3D Sweets included 31 players committed to play for Division I programs. But talent alone was not enough.

“This could only work for this group of guys,” Robinson said. “This is a lot more than just ‘find good players and have them move here and play.’ I have had very good players who this wouldn’t have worked with. There is a maturity level, there is a level of engagement, there is a commitment level from the families, there is a commitment level from the kids. All of these things have to link up.”

While there was plenty the kids could take away from the off-field experience, they were there to play baseball. In addition to competing in front of dozens of evaluators, players experienced a more beneficial playing environment—both in the quantity of games and the quality of the opposition.

“Down here, the competition’s way better,” Knight said. “My league up in Washington isn’t that good. So it’s been nice to face some better arms than what I would have seen in high school.

“At first I was getting back into things and it was kind of rough getting my timing back and everything, but playing almost every single day has been really good. I have definitely developed a lot more as a hitter than I would have in (my) high school season just playing one game every three or four days.”

One of the highlights for 3D Sweets was traveling to Southern California and facing one of the best high school teams in the country: JSerra Catholic in San Juan Capistrano. The private school has three top 100 prospects in the 2021 class, including righthander Eric Silva, who ran his fastball up to 97 mph during the game in front of a massive crowd of scouts.

“We just really wanted to beat them,” Debiec said. “They have a really good name for themselves, a lot of commits . . . It was a great atmosphere and a bunch of fun.

“We ended up beating them two games to one. Just seeing how many scouts—there were a lot of people there . . . I don’t think a lot of the Northwest guys played in a lot of games with scouts like this.”

Hitters had the benefit of facing better arms than they would typically see in the Pacific Northwest and getting hitting advice from former Oregon State coach Pat Bailey, who came down every other week. Pitchers worked on their routines, got in-game reps earlier than they would previously and learned from each other.

“I think it absolutely accelerated (our) development,” Hurd said. “Those Northwest kids are so dialed in with their arm care. A big thing of mine that I wanted to hammer home while I was there was my post-throw recovery, and I certainly got that.

“Those Northwest kids, I kind of feel like that controlled lab type environment for pitching . . . It comes out in those kids, so having organic pitching conversations and picking guys’ brains and using our resources was huge, along with falling into a routine.”

Debiec entered the season wanting to refine his mechanics and improve his posture on the mound. A talented athlete who previously played basketball at O’Dea High with one of the top incoming 2021 recruits in the nation—Duke commit Paolo Banchero—Debiec watched how Hurd moved on the mound to help his own adjustments. And Debiec also looked to provide feedback to Hurd where he could.

“Thatcher has amazing body control,” Debiec said. “When I watched him pitch, and how his body works I took a note that I wanted to be that smooth and be like him. So I took that away (from him) and he showed me some grips and stuff that he uses.

“I gave him my grips, how I throw the ball and I kind of helped him on his changeup. I mean I didn’t throw my changeup a lot, but I could see that he slows his arm down so I just mentioned if you shoot up your arm a little bit it will be better with spin and throw hitters off. And his changeup was dirty as outings went on.”

Now that the 3D Sweets experience is over, the obvious question looms: Will this sort of experience become the new norm for high-level players?

“That is the million dollar question,” Ritchie said.

In a future with Covid-19 vaccines and a pandemic in the rearview mirror, perhaps education goes back to normal and this simply isn’t possible or practical, with high school seasons no longer in jeopardy.

But it’s hard to ignore the benefits of what these players, coaches and parents experienced in Phoenix.

“I think we have hopefully opened up some eyes and some minds to that outside-the-box thinking that this group has exhibited,” Robinson said. “This will be a difference-maker in their lives. I have had many scouts tell us that this was a difference-maker for them, that this was huge for them in terms of being able to evaluate in a way they have never been able to evaluate and I think it’s going to show come draft day.

“And I think that’s the thing that talks louder than anything is, as these guys are flying off the board, why would you not do something like this if your kid is a 2022 or a 2023 for their draft? So I hope so. I don’t see any reason why it shouldn’t (work). Without Covid it will be more difficult.”

A year after Covid-19 threw everyone’s world into chaos, it’s strange to hear about anything being difficult in a world without it. But even if an experience like this doesn’t come along ever again, it’s something the 3D Sweets players will never forget.

“I think this has actually been my favorite experience playing baseball so far,” Knight said. “It’s been really, really fun. Just different than anything else. It’s been a great experience.”

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