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Emergence Of A Hotbed

By Will Kimmey
June 3, 2005

Virginia has produced plenty of firsts. America's first permanent settlement came in Jamestown in 1607. The College of William & Mary opened the nation's first law school in 1779, started the first educational honor system and founded Phi Beta Kappa. Virginia native George Washington served as the nation's first president from 1789-97, and seven more presidents have come from the state.

In the sports world, NFL franchises have drafted Virginia natives first overall three times: Bill Dudley (1942), Bruce Smith (1985) and Michael Vick (2001) while Ralph Sampson (1984) and Allen Iverson (1996) became No. 1 picks in the NBA draft. Yet for all its firsts and abundant athletic talent, Virginia has never produced the first pick of the baseball draft.

Expect that to change this year. Chesapeake's Justin Upton rates as the favorite to go from Great Bridge High in Chesapeake to the Diamondbacks with the first selection, one pick earlier than his brother B.J. went to the Devil Rays in 2002. Old Dominion righthander Justin Verlander (2004) and James Madison righthander Jay Franklin (1971) give Virginia three No. 2 overall picks in draft history.

Virginia colleges and high schools have accounted for two first-round picks in each of the last three drafts, and nine times overall. The state has never exceeded that figure, but that's another first waiting to happen in 2005. Virginia's Ryan Zimmerman and two high school players--Centreville's Brandon Snyder and Richmond's Justin Bristow--all could join Upton in the first round, with Zimmerman a potential top-five pick.

That would mark quite a windfall for a state that has produced 28 first-round picks over the draft's 40 years (see chart). It's had scouting directors and crosscheckers spending more time in the state, because the talent spread means nearly every team will have a shot at drafting a Virginian. Most of the talent in Virginia is in three regions that can be reached on one tank of gas. Starting in northern Virginia's affluent Washington, D.C., suburbs, you can drive 100 miles south on Interstate 95 to reach the state capital in Richmond. From there, another 100 miles east on I-64 puts you in the Tidewater region, the fertile crescent of the state that has produced four of the state's last nine first-rounders.

"They all have their own little thing, but it's a very good class of prospects in the state of Virginia," an American League area scout said. "Obviously with Upton going in the first couple of picks and Zimmerman not far behind. From what I'm seeing and hearing on Snyder, he might not be there much longer, and with Bristow it's the same thing.

"There's plenty of other guys in this region as well. There's talk of a lot of guys in the state of Virginia, even beyond those four."

That's a relatively impressive feat, one usually reserved for more populous, warm-weather states such as California, Texas and Florida. Virginia's temperate climate and the nation's 12th-largest population (about 7.5 million) don't explain the sudden spike in talent, one that has seen 11 of the state's first-round selections come since 1996.

Scouts, executives and coaches at the high school and college levels tossed around all sorts of ideas for Virginia's recent draft boom. They spanned the serious (the spread of indoor facilities across the state) and the lighthearted (something other than fluoride being added to the water). Yet nearly all of them returned to the recipe of excellent youth-level coaching mixed with an area rich in athletic talent.

Most pointed to one man for the genesis of the talent explosion: Mark Newman, now the Yankees' senior vice president of baseball operations.

Newman grew up a Yankees fan in Southern California in the 1950s and '60s and played college baseball for Itch Jones at Southern Illinois before serving nine seasons as his pitching coach while working toward his law degree. Newman's cross-country baseball migration carried him to the top job at Old Dominion in 1981, when Jones made a call to one of his former classmates, ODU athletics director Jim Jarrett.

Newman quickly noted the athletic talent in the Tidewater region, an area that encompasses Chesapeake, Newport News, Norfolk and Virginia Beach and is better known for its tourism, shipyards and military bases. Newman staged summer and winter baseball camps for young players and clinics for aspiring coaches, a practice he learned from Jones that already was popular in warm-weather states, but had not yet come to Virginia.

"It elevated people's awareness of baseball in the area," Newman said. "There were always great athletes coming out of schools in Virginia, (but) some didn't play baseball."

Newman did things the way he had learned them from Jones, focusing on work ethic through regimented drills on different baseball fundamentals. The list of major leaguers who came through his early camps includes Willie Banks, Jerry DiPoto, Steve Karsay, John Valetin and Dmitri Young.

"The biggest key to changing baseball in this area was Mark Newman," said Ryan Morris, a Portsmouth native who spent five years at as recruiting coordinator at Virginia Commonwealth before taking on the same role Old Dominion's last summer. "He started invitational camps. He was teaching things that weren't being taught baseball-wise in this area. The details of mechanics . . . He was a guy who stressed work ethic and doing this the right way."

Newman's success on the field reinforced his abilities as a coach and teacher. He won 65 percent of his games in nine seasons at Old Dominion before leaving for the Yankees after the 1989 season. Successors Pat McMahon (1990-94) and Tony Guzzo (1995- 2004) kept the camps and clinics going. Similar college camps have spread across the state, including one Guzzo began as Virginia Commonwealth's coach before taking the Old Dominion job.

"That's a huge impact, when you look at how Mark Newman started the camp phenomenon," said Auburn coach Tom Slater, who worked at the Old Dominion camps in the early 1990s as an assistant at Marshall and Virginia Military Institute. "That really helped, especially in Tidewater with the growth in that area. (Mets third baseman) David Wright was in that camp. There's a reason he's such a good hitter: some of it is natural ability, but somebody gave him a base."

Newman's contributions reach beyond his 321 wins at Old Dominion or even the camps. His lasting legacy is in the players and coaches he influenced, many of whom are still helping to cultivate the state's talent as he once did.

"I honestly don't know how to quantify that, but I do think the university and program that we ran had a beneficial affect on Virginia," Newman said. "Wiley Lee is a classic example. He's one of the best high school coaches in the country and I'm proud to have been able to have coached him."

Both Lee, who coaches Justin Upton at Great Bridge High, and Scott Hughes, the coach at Deep Creek, played for Newman at ODU in the early 1980s and then went on to minor league careers before settling back in the area as coaches. Two of their ODU contemporaries hold college coaching jobs: Paul Keyes succeeded Guzzo as VCU's coach in 1996 and has become the winningest coach in school history, while Nick Boothe has won five coach of the year awards in 19 seasons at Division III Virginia Wesleyan.

"I've spent time talking to different scouts, seeing where we can improve our practices," Lee said. "They've enjoyed our practices and I feel like we've prepared Upton for pro ball. We don't have any standing around and watching; everything goes at game speed and is based on thinking and reacting, like Coach Newman did. He used to add extra elements to game situations, like running a stopwatch on us during bunt defense drills."

The coaching acumen doesnít stop there. Gary Lavelle, a 13-year major league veteran with two all-star appearances, returned to coach Greenbrier Christian Academy this season after spending five years as a Yankees pitching instructor. He won seven private school state titles in 11 seasons before leaving Greenbrier in 1999. Lavelle also opened the Athlete Training Institute at Greenbrier, an indoor complex for baseball and softball training.

Guy Hansen, the Royals pitching coach who formerly worked in the Braves organization, and Mark Meleski, a former hitting instructor for the Tigers and Braves organizations, work at academies and offer lessons in the Richmond area. Bristow and Hermitage High righthander Scott Taylor spent time with Hansen honing their mechanics and repertoires.

Tim Haynes, a Washington, D.C., native, spent 10 seasons coaching Dinwiddie County High before landing a volunteer and then a full-time assistant position on Keyes' VCU staff. Norbie Wilson, who worked many ODU camps with Newman, won 414 games in 26 seasons at Virginia Beach's First Colonial High before retiring after the 2004 season and turning the job over to Scott Stubbe.

"I see so many coaches who donít care, itís like they drew the short straw in the teachers lounge. All he makes sure is he has same number of kids going back on bus as came," said a veteran area scout who has covered Virginia for more than a decade. "In Virginia they really care--itís a self-perpetuating thing."

High school coaches learn from college coaches and teach players strong fundamentals from an early age. The players leave the prep ranks more polished and more ready to compete at higher levels.

"The high school coaches in the area have a passion for teaching baseball," McMahon said. "They work hard at camps, and it always helped you get better players when they got to college."

That also breeds success at the college level, sends players from Virginia to the minors and majors, and draws attention from younger athletes. They give baseball a shot--helped across the state by more indoor complexes and growing AAU and summer baseball programs--and develop confidence when they have success. Now instead of the next Michael Vick or Allen Iverson, Virginia teens can strive to be like Upton--either one.

"A few guys get exposure in the area or state, and it sparks some interest," said Mark McQueen, Richmond's recruiting coordinator for 12 years before taking the same job at VCU in 2000. "Before you know it, guys are popping up here and there. When you get attention in one area, kids get notice and start working harder, doing the things those guys are doing."

Great Bridge High's twin 1997 first-rounders, Michael Cuddyer and John Curtice, started the modern trend, and Upton and Zimmerman will add to it this year.

"Cuddyer and Curtice were the ones that put the dynamite to it," Lee said. "A lot of guys lit that fuse before, playing in college after growing up here. But then Cuddyer and Curtice were like 'Boom!' and then you get a David Wright, a B.J. Upton and all that. The foundation was laid by Coach Newman proving to guys that they can go to college and play."

That's how things worked for Morris, who played at Division III Bridgewater College after learning the game at Newman's camps. The experience drove him to become a coach, and a picture of Newman hangs on the wall in his office at ODU. Morris bumped into Newman at the Yankees' complex in Tampa this spring, when he was in town to see Verlander's pro debut for Detroit's Lakeland affiliate.

"He remembered me, took me upstairs and talked baseball for 2 1/2 hours," Morris said. "It was really cool because he was a mentor of mine."

When Morris was packing to move from VCU to ODU last August, he came across a memento from another mentor: a game-worn Old Dominion jersey he bought at one of the camps. It had belonged to Hughes, who worked at the camps during his playing days.

Morris showed Hughes the jersey the next time he ran into him on the recruiting trail. Hughes smiled at the memory and produced one of his own, a Little League trading card with a young Morris pictured on the front. Hughes had kept it for nearly 20 years.

"There's an innumerable amount of people you could give credit to in the area, but it's all been a process since the 1980s," Morris said. "It's a big ball that kept rolling."

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