Inside Pitch Magazine, November/December 2021

Coaches' Corner: The State of the Game

By Johnathan Gehris, Cary High School (NC) head coach
Jonathan Gehris standing in front of dugout talking to batter while they look out towards the field. Baseball is at war with itself. It may not feel like it to some, or people may be able to block it out and refocus but it is getting harder to do so.

With the ever changing landscapes, recruiting rules, facility wars, athletes reclassifying, collegiate transfer portal, shortened draft, loss of minor league teams, and Twitter wars over "baseball drill or eye wash?" it's hard not to feel at a loss. You make a statement that hustling, playing sound fundamental baseball, and getting stronger should be the method for high school baseball and the people who profit off tools and shortcuts take offense. If it hits close to home, sorry, but kids are looking for a quick fix to skip necessary steps in development. Their arms aren’t ready for it, their knees can’t handle it. Not enough supervision with the athletes long term health in mind.

Where do we go? What is the solution? To find some answers I look to other sports. Yes, our athletes should aspire to play multiple sports, but these other sports also offer lessons. AAU/Showcase has been rampant in basketball, soccer, lacrosse, volleyball, baseball, and softball. Elite tournaments make hundreds of thousands in revenue every week. Athletes get lessons or have trainers to try and prepare them to excel. Athletes have started to choose club soccer over school soccer. Club volleyball events over in season sports for their high schools. They are playing more but with lower sports IQ. Less time learning, more time being placed in a harness and dropped on a treadmill going 25mph. A gym rat finds success the same way a caged rat does; through effort and investment. Few are doing this, it seems, because it lacks a good story on social media. Better to post an image of a juiced radar gun showing 88mph than to workout in the gym and throw charted bullpens for accuracy.

How can we stop this? In searching for answers I landed on football. Sure, football has its own set of issues but not the showcase/show and go that you get from national championship tournaments in Georgia or Florida (of which, by the way we have a ton of them throughout the summer and fall––not sure how you are truly a national champion. High School has state finals and college/major league have world series: one champion per year). To play college football you have to play high school football. Friday night lights bring a whole community together. College coaches are forced to build relationships with high school coaches and heed their opinions. In our sport, baseball, I have had guys signed without ever speaking to a college coach. I have also had college coaches say to me “why didn’t you tell me he was lazy and soft?” To which all I can do is say you never asked me. Just this spring, in fact, I had a college coach read me his notes of conversation with a 14 year old in my program and cop an attitude with me about the status of his arm. I was blown away. Having helped over sixty players get into college baseball, having helped five get into professional baseball, I was left thinking "is this where we are at? Is this the state of amateur baseball?"

I don't want to be at war with college coaches. I have had people read me their resumes when I questioned their treatment of a former player, I have had a coach tell me "you say the kid can play and I'm gonna sign him on your word"...only for me to tell him he can play and the player wasn’t signed. Football doesn’t seem to have this problem. They ask the guys who see the athlete daily, "who is the athlete and what can we expect?" Sure, some college baseball programs still operate this way but more are not. Going to Atlanta for three weeks has replaced coming to high school games.

Who is to blame? Hard to assign this one. We, the high school coaches, have to take blame. We have to focus harder on culture and promote inclusivity, community, and brotherhood. Creeds they can get behind and aspire to be a part of. The college coaches have to make a better effort to engage the high school coaches and build relationships that help them grow their program. The return is more eyes on all kids that could help their program. Showcase coaches have to understand that carrying a few more players and rotating catchers out and using more arms every game saves the kids from burnout and injury. The private instructor and the high school coach need to be in communication so training plans can be synched up with the athletes best interest in mind. The outside help should be a blessing and not a curse. There is enough credit to go around and the goal should always be the athletes growth and development. Football holds the keys for recruitment in high school and it seems to work. Other sports have middle schoolers committed, or so it seems, and that needs to stop.

High school sports should be fun. High school sports should be focused on development, growth, and teaching the game. Winning is the byproduct of doing that well. College and high school baseball should be in union––working together to grow a healthy game. Outside instructors play a huge role and need to be in the loop in the athletes team of success. Former players attacking baseball instructors and coaches online doesn’t grow the game. People will always think outside the box and come up with new teaching tools and methods. Some will work, some will not, some will be downright ridiculous. Common sense will have to prevail. It's a painful crossroads for this great game. The kids who play it are great, it's us, the adults that need to figure out how to work together and push the game forward. The greatest field, uniforms, media guide, and twitter page will only get you so far. Putting people first will put the game first. Working together and being honest will keep relationships up, which will help make recruiting easier. Lots of sports are trapped in the web. The balance is off. Parents advocate and give their kids their best. Coaches and instructors try to do the same. We just all need to get on the same page.

I, for one, will be gathering information from my players including the contact information of their summer and fall showcase teams and their outside instructors. I will be reaching out and trying to keep all parties in the loop for my athletes. It's going to be a lot of extra work and time; but the game and its future depends on it.

Since the beginning of his high school head coaching career in 2007, Jonathan Gehris has guided more than 60 of his players to the college baseball ranks and had four former players sign professional contracts. He’s coached three high school All-Americans, ten All-State players, and has led Cary High School (NC) to a pair of state championship appearances and one state title. He is a 14-year member of the ABCA. 

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