Worldwide, Tommy Lasorda is arguably baseball’s greatest ambassador. Colorful and recognizable, he is as popular in front of corporate crowds as he is in baseball circles, and he can command as much as $50,000 for public speeches. So when I invited him to speak at the 2007 Diamond Dinner/Auction for the University of Portland, I expected to be turned down, or to face the reality that his fee was substantially more than my program could afford.

I was surprised. Pleasantly.

Truthfully, I did not invite Tommy to Portland. My good friend Hank Jones — a Dodgers employee whose 42-year tenure is presumably exceeded only by Vin Scully and Lasorda himself — did the asking. They are close, and Hank knew that Tommy — 80 at the time — was secure with his personal and professional positions in life, and understood the challenges faced by underfunded college baseball programs like mine.

Before a crowd of more than 400, Tommy recounted his conversation with Hank:

 

Tommy, you consider yourself a patriot, a real American, do you not?

You know I do, Henry.

You really believe we live in the greatest country on earth?

You bet. In the U.S. every man is free to become anything he wants to be, provided he puts in the work.

But do you believe in the Second Amendment? 

Hey, I know this is a controversial one, Hank, but I absolutely do. Americans should be free to defend themselves and their families against dangerous people breaking into their homes.

Yeah, I hear you. And what about the First Amendment? Do you support that?

Of course I do! I am a firm believer in free speech!

Good to hear. You’re giving one at the University of Portland on February third.

 

For the next forty minutes, Tommy generously regaled the crowd with stories from his remarkable baseball career. And as it turns out, his humorous nod to patriotism is no joke: among Tommy’s greatest baseball memories is coaching Team USA to the Gold Medal in the 2000 Olympic Games.

“As a manager in the big leagues, you spend most of your time trying to get your guys to play for the name on the front of the jersey, instead of the name on the back,” he said. “Millionaire baseball players can be selfish sometimes. But it was different with the Olympic team. There, it was no problem getting them to play for the three letters across their chests — USA.”

Tommy’s words hit home. I was heading into my eleventh season as a college head coach, and had experienced my share of players who needed to learn the importance of team play, role players, and putting others first. With deference to Tommy and the big leaguers he managed, even my college guys were among the best players in their state, so getting buy-in was sometimes a challenge.

A few days after the Diamond Dinner, I was in the middle of a recruiting discussion with Larry Casian, my pitching coach and himself a veteran of nine Major League seasons, when he said that high school players need to think about more than the name on the front of the jersey, at least when they are selecting a college to attend. “They better consider how the name on the back of the jersey — theirs — fits inside the name on the front.” In other words, don’t pick a college based solely on how its baseball team looks in Baseball America’s latest rankings. They may be the best team in the country, but are they the best team for you?

I kid Coach Casian because he loves to talk and because he continues conversations that stalled days ago while referencing people and things exclusively with pronouns, so you never really know who or what he’s talking about. His brand of English is, let’s say, more Mr. Berra than Mrs. Jacobson, my 12th grade English teacher. But Coach Casian, now a scout with the San Francisco Giants, is smart, very smart. Brilliant, in a street sense.

And in this case, he was right on the money.

Recruiting seems to be happening sooner with each passing year, as Division I coaches — some paid handsomely — feel more pressure to secure their futures with talented recruiting classes. When I signed a National Letter of Intent in July following my high school graduation in 1984, I wasn’t worried at all. Two years earlier, Dave Brundage — who was a much better player than me, starred at Oregon State as two-way player, and is today knocking on the door to a Major League managing job — signed with OSU only after Coach Jack Riley saw him play … in August after he graduated… in a football game!

Times have changed. Today, most Division I coaches are deep into kids who are still waiting to play their junior season in high school. Some are even dipping into the sophomores and freshmen classes.

But early recruiting is a slippery slope. College coaches don’t have crystal balls or any other way of knowing with certainty that a high school sophomore will one day lead their college program to the Promised Land, so extending a scholarship offer to a young, underdeveloped player may leave them regretting the offer when the player doesn’t pan out. Similarly, a college prospect may be repentant when he discovers that he made a commitment to a school before better options had time to unfold. Of the 52 players  selected in the first round of the 1997 MLB draft (including supplemental picks), 19 failed to reach the Major Leagues. Many of those were experienced, physically mature college players, and the others had at least graduated high school. So if accurately judging the potential of 18-22 year old players is a challenge, how foggy is the crystal ball that holds the image of a 15-year old kid?

For coaches and prospects alike, making an early commitment can test one’s integrity. On one hand, what happens if the player doesn’t develop, or if the coach needs scholarship money to offer a better player at the same position? And on the other, what happens if the player discovers a better fit at another school he didn’t know anything about, or was simply slower to identify him? When either party chooses to renege, tough conversations must be had that will call values into question — conversations that might be avoided if only the process slowed down enough to allow coaches to evaluate prospects more thoroughly, and if young, inexperienced decision-makers were not operating under so much pressure to make the coveted “verbal commitment” that theoretically — though unofficially — ends their recruitment.

Look, nobody wants a prom date to stand them up for a guy with nicer clothes, more popular friends, and a cooler car. And when asked to the dance, nobody wants to tell their suitor, “I’ll think about it.” But for the vast majority of high school kids, this is the biggest decision they will make in their young lives. They better think about it! A coach who truly cares about his recruits will understand and appreciate the time they spend researching their options. And if you decide to say yes, he’ll know you’re all in — arguably the first step in building a successful team.

Yes, at some point, the college coach needs to know who he’s taking to the prom. He is under tremendous pressure from his administration to build a winning program, as are the coaches of other programs who are scrambling to gather their own verbal commitments like guitar picks at Kiss concert. Before making a commitment to one another, coaches and prospects should consider this: commitment means staying loyal to what you said you were going to do long after the mood you said it in has left you. If this can be done, then integrity is unquestionable. Before one can arrive at this point, however, good information from a variety of sources must be gathered — an exercise that unfortunately takes time.

Fortunately, the NCAA provides two National Letter of Intent signing periods for baseball during which a prospect can officially end his recruitment: an 8-day window in November, prior to his senior season; and a 108-day period from mid-April to August 1. Regardless of the number of players who sign with them in November, I know of no program that does not continue to sign players during the spring/summer period. The best hitter I ever coached, Kory Casto, was not recruited by other four-year schools. He signed with my school in August — two weeks before classes started — was drafted in the third round as a junior, and reached the Major Leagues with the Washington Nationals. Kory is one of many players who reached his full potential, despite a later commitment.

Before a young man makes his college selection, I recommend he first considers what he’s looking for in his college experience. Four years vanishes quickly, and with NCAA rules that require Division I transfers to move down a level or sit out a year before becoming eligible for competition, the following should be tried on:

Academic Fit

Earning a degree is the most important reason to attend college. Approximately 1 out of 10 college players signs a professional contract. Of those, very few actually make it to the Major Leagues. Therefore, the education that one falls back on is huge factor in what a player will do after graduation. Make sure the schools you are considering offer what you’re looking for. If you want to work in the woods when your playing days are through, look for a school with a good baseball program and an outstanding forestry department. Why would you even consider going to a school that didn’t offer your major field of interest? What a shame it would be to spend the next 45 years of your life working at something you hate just so you could play for the name on the front of the jersey for four years. You can do better.

Other academic considerations include class size and access to support, like tutors and the professors themselves, as well as the overall culture of academic excellence. This may be of particular interest if you plan to pursue graduate study.

Campus Fit

Can you see yourself thriving in a large environment of, say, 45,000 students, with lots of academic, social, and cultural programs from which to choose? Or do you think you would do better in smaller classes where you have the opportunity to seek help directly and get to know your classmates and professors on a deeper level?

When my friend and former university colleague, Dan McGinty, was in high school, he toured UCLA with his best friend, on what turned out to be the first day of spring term. When they entered the bookstore to purchase souvenir t-shirts, they happened on a significant portion of UCLA’s 40,000 students, all franticly searching for textbooks. Dan escaped, claustrophobic and gasping for air, exclaiming, “This is not at all what I want!” Twenty minutes later, his friend sauntered out with a wry grin and his arms full of swag, saying, “This is exactly what I want.” 

To-MAY-to, to-MAH-to. We’re all different and some kids prefer being a little fish in a big pond, navigating their way across a massive campus in relative obscurity, while others like a campus that is smaller and easier to get around, often providing more opportunity to run into friends and associates.

Geographic Fit

Let’s face it, some kids want to get as far away home as possible, while others prefer to be close enough to return home regularly, or to have their friends and family come watch them play. The city or town in which the campus is located is important not only because it dictates the kind of weather one experiences — as well as the entertainment, shopping, recreation, and cultural opportunities that are available — but because many kids choose to make their college town their home after graduation. (It has been my experience that job opportunities, close friends, and girlfriends have much to do with this phenomenon.)

Athletic Fit

For all but the most grounded kids and parents (a group of which I was not a part when I was 18), this is the area of greatest interest. Players generally want to know how they stack up against their prospective teammates: Am built like them? Do I run as fast, or throw as hard? Am I one of several recruits at my position, or will I be asked to change positions? And how do I measure up to the players already in the program?

But there is more here to consider.

For example, how will the coaches treat and support you through the inevitable highs and lows that you will experience on and off the field? Will you be treated as a family member, or as just another uniform? Is your development as a player, as a student, and as a man as important as the team’s record? This can be difficult to tell because competing is such an emotional experience, and even the best coaches can be hard on their players from time to time. But you should sense a genuine care and concern from the way your coaches interact with you.

Are the players your kind of people? My wife always encourages me to hang out with people who make me better. People with serious academic and athletic goals should not be burdened with teammates who are negative influences. Are your future teammates focused, healthy, and positive people? Or are they hardcore partiers who speak negatively about their coaches and teammates? Believe me, there will be no one that you spend more time with than your teammates, so you will want to get a strong sense of fit in this area. You’re not going to be best friends with all of them, but make sure there are enough of the right kind of people.

And when is your turn to play? Are you being recruited to replace a starter who is graduating? If so, how many returners and recruits will you be competing against? To gather that information, you can start by pulling a roster off the internet, but eventually you will want to ask the coach directly where you stack up relative to your competition. A good coach will explain where he sees you today, as well as all the moving parts and what-ifs that could affect your playing time in the future. If he can’t see you playing within a time frame you are comfortable with, perhaps it is not a good fit. On the other hand, if he guarantees you will be a starter, be leery. There are no guarantees and you would be a fool to expect one. No matter where you go, it is going to be competitive. I used to tell the recruits who sat across the table from me, “I love my mother very much. But I wouldn’t promise her she will be my starting shortstop.” In other words, you will need to earn your playing time. And because there will be new recruits every year, you will need to keep earning your playing time. The expensive stadiums and equipment contracts that coaches use to lure players to their schools come with a price of heavy expectation. Winning has become the most important thing to many Division I institutions. If you are not helping the coach keep his job, you will not play.

Facilities Fit

Every school puts its glossiest pictures on its webpage. But a tour of campus is irreplaceable as a tool to evaluate academic, residential, athletic facilities. What does a classroom look like? How big are the dorm rooms? And where will I locker, lift, and practice? are important questions to consider. You might also consider the relative proximity of these facilities, particularly if you will not have a vehicle at school.

For years, there has been an arms race in athletic facilities, primarily at larger schools, that shows no sign of slowing down. Some on the West Coast are among the best I’ve ever seen. Quality training facilities are a major factor for most prospects, and schools in wet weather climates have additional needs compared to their sunbelt peers. Just be careful to distinguish between what you must have to reach your goals, and what would be cool to have.

Social Fit

Growing socially is arguably one of the most important reasons to attend college. Much of your social life will be derived from areas already addressed here, like the team, the campus, and the city where the school is located. Whether you like to hunt, fish, ski, or experience world class shopping, theatre, and restaurants, you will likely enjoy those activities with the people you meet on campus.

Financial Fit

I’ve known a few families for whom cost was not an issue. But for most of us, the rising cost of higher education is a daunting concern. Since I graduated high school in 1984, the average cost of attendance has climbed 538%. Student loan debt is crippling American college students  before their adult life even begins, and parents are sacrificing their retirement to put their kids through school.

If you are considering a junior college, NAIA, or NCAA D1 or D2 school, discuss with the coach the opportunity for athletic scholarship available? Speak with the admissions office about academic merit awards, and discuss opportunities for federal, state, and other forms of aid with the financial aid office. A good coach with get that conversation started for you.

One last point on this topic: While most of us think of state schools as being the most affordable option, don’t dismiss privates schools too quickly. It’s true that their posted tuition rates can stop your heart, but most offer very generous merit awards to kids with good grades and test scores.

Final Thoughts

The University of Virginia won the 2015 College World Series, a tremendous feat, but by itself a myopic reason to attend school there. This is no knock on Virginia, believe me. Rather an obvious example, given their position at the top of this year’s college baseball world. They have a beautiful facility, and by all appearances, one of the classiest head coaches in all of sports — better reasons to attend, but perhaps still shortsighted if, for example, you live in San Diego and can’t be far from a sibling with special needs; can’t afford the cost of attendance; or have little chance to play.

On the other hand, if Virginia is in the mix with four other schools because they want you, are offering a scholarship that makes attendance affordable, offer your major, and have a reputation for treating people the way you want to be treated, go visit. As I said earlier, every school puts its glossiest pictures on the webpage. Only be visiting multiple campuses will you begin to get a true feel for what each school and its baseball program is all about.

Every campus, every coach, and every program has its own feel, that special something that either welcomes you inside like the comfort of a Sorel mountain boot, or rejects you like a belt that’s too tight. Sometimes you can explain what you’re feeling, other times you cannot. Either way, you know it when you feel it. Powerhouse programs have facilities that can blow your doors off. It is simply impossible not to be impressed, especially when you are seventeen years old. But there is much more to consider, which is where an experienced advisor and level-headed parent comes into play. The school you choose may not meet all your needs as perfectly as you would like — let’s face it, they’re all too expensive — but it should be the one that feels right for the most important reasons.

The school you choose should be the one where the name on the back on the jersey fits inside the name on the front.

 

Written by Chris Sperry

Chris Sperry

Chris Sperry is a baseball consultant who develops players and amateur coaches, assists professional scouts, and counsels families of prospective college-bound student-athletes. He holds a Bachelor's of Business Administration from the University of Portland, the same institution at which he served as head baseball coach for 18 years. His key interests are in player and personal development as they pertain to a life in and beyond sports.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published.