By BRIAN WOODSON
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
BLUEFIELD, Va. —
College baseball might not get the attention of football and basketball, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less competitive.
Just ask Mike White, the Bluefield College baseball coach, who — along with assistant Ryan Lambert — have traveled the country looking for talent to compete in the ultra-competitive Mid-South Conference, and that will carry over when the Rams return to the Appalachian Athletic Conference next season.
“We were all over the place,” White said. “We got a few frequent flyer miles last year.”
Not to mention a higher phone bill than most.
“It is a lot of phone calls,” White said. “It a lot of trying to network with other coaches across the country and trying to get kids that fit what we are trying to do.”
Much like the major leagues where the big money Yankees can no longer buy all the best players, the same theory applies at the college level, where the talent gap continues to close.
“Every weekend is a dogfight, there are no weekends off,” said White, whose Rams have won 11 in a row, and have started the Mid-South slate with a 3-0 record. “That is one thing I have noticed in the last nine years of being in it is the competition gap has tightened, everyone is able to go out now and get those players...
“The advances in technology are allowing those kids to come and everybody is finding them now, the field is level...Now everybody is getting those athletes and it comes down to who is able to execute on a given day.”
A quick look at the Bluefield College baseball roster and it reveals five players from California, two each from Florida and Washington (state), one apiece from Oregon, Arizona and Indiana, and even an import from Australia. All but one of those have become Rams this season.
That isn’t by accident, nor is it uncommon for college baseball teams on the right coast to bring in players from the other side of the country.
“We went out there last year and got to spend some time out there with the coaches,” White said. “They are old school, they are very old school in their approach, and that is something that fits what we are trying to do here.”
It’s not just Bluefield. There are plenty of athletes out west, and many of them are looking for a place to play.
“It goes back to the level of competition, they have to fight, scratch and claw for everything that they get,” White said. “They are going to see to 84 (miles per hour) or 88 on a daily basis, and we are going to see 84 here and we think it is 90.
“It is just the level of competition in my experiences, and if you look at the Mid-South rosters, it is all Midwest to the left coast.”
Why, you might ask, would Tyler Timmer, a resident of sunny San Diego, easily one of the most beautiful and weather-friendly places on earth, want to travel to the snow and cold of Bluefield?
“A lot of them, they seem to be open to the adventure,” White said. “The reason they stay is you have got to develop the relationship with them.
“We are Four Seasons Country here, it is going to snow. If you are looking for a Christian education at a small college setting, it is a great place to get better. We are not Virginia Tech, we don’t advertise to be that.”
Check out the Appalachian League rosters every summer, and rarely are there players from the large Division I schools. These athletes know they can still chase their dream of professional baseball at schools like Bluefield.
“The old adage is they will find you if you are under a rock,” White said. “I think what you have to do is put yourself in a situation where you out there every day, 90 (miles per hour) is 90 whether it is in Bluefield or in Blacksburg.
“Here, at the NAIA level, it is a little more forgiving, you are going to go out and you are going to get more opportunities here. If you go to Virginia Tech with the amount of resources they are putting in it, they have got 90 sitting in the bullpen who has never taken his jacket off.
“He may have one opportunity to go out there, and have a bad outing and he doesn’t go back out there. Here, you are probably going to go back out there.”
What schools like Bluefield and Bluefield State — which has also had its share of imports from the left coast — do offer is a chance, and the Rams are glad to provide, with baseball talent in the local area having dried up in recent years, although White does see it beginning to improve.
“What those guys away from here are looking for is an opportunity to play,” White said. “Baseball in Southwest Virginia and southern West Virginia, it is coming back, I really do believe that.
“It is making a move back, but it is not where it was in the eighties or the nineties when Ray Spenilla had his teams at Castlewood and Mac Shupe had his teams at J.J. Kelly. You are not getting those types of athletes.
“They are not as abundant in our area as they used to be, whereas if you go to Atlanta or Southern California or San Francisco, there are more players than there are teams for them to play for.”
It’s not just the talent that White is looking to bring to Bluefield. It is the right talent.
“In nine years in it, I have finally figured out that you don’t necessarily have to have all the Division I transfers, you have got to have the kids that fit what you are trying to do,” White said. “The hard-nosed kids, you have got to find kids out there that have a like mindset with the way you want to play. To get those number of kids that is a lot of phone calls.”
Lambert has also played a large role in helping the Rams become a destination of choice for so many athletes from across the country.
“Coach Lambert did a great job, he did a lot of the legwork right there of being able to go out and identify those kids,” White said. “It is like a big funnel, you start with a big group of names and we work our way down through it.
“We evaluate them on everything, and probably how good they are is the last thing we look at. Are they good students, are they going to be good citizens, good kids. Obviously they can play or we wouldn’t have their names.”
Recruiting has changed since the advent of technology, and White has been impressed with how the high school coaches in other sections of the country promote their players, and work to give them a chance at the next level.
“The people are on the left coast right now are doing a remarkable job of promoting their kids,” White said. “I think something that happens now that evolved that wasn’t available five or six years ago is the things you are able to get on your computer.
“I am able to basically able to watch him in real time, do everything I need to do. Pretty much with the exception of the face to face meeting, I can see that now. The availability of technology has taken off because of the smaller schools in the south like us, we get an opportunity to see those kids, and those guys out there do a great job of marketing.”
Still, recruiting is an inexact science, which can make life difficult for someone like White who is having to make his livelihood with the assistance of kids just a year or two out of high school.
No one ever gets them all right.
“We get better as we go along, but the recruiting process is a bear, sometimes we make good calls and sometimes we miss it,” White said. “I have been at it long enough that I have made some good calls and I have made some bad calls.”