Riverside Press reporter Michael Becker wrote this story about a club baseball league that could compete against high school baseball by pulling away its best players. Is this something for baseball fans to be concerned with?
By MICHAEL BECKER
An Inland man with hefty influence in amateur baseball has formed a club league that could, if successful, compete directly with high school baseball by poaching its most promising athletes. The league — said to be the first of its kind — will take place in the spring and provide an alternative opportunity for players dissatisfied with the high school baseball experience, said Mike Spiers, the league’s founder. But he is facing stark opposition from high school coaches and administrators who question his motives and worry that such action might someday cripple the high school game.
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Club baseball has flourished in the past decade as parents and athletes demanded year-round competition and instruction. For up to $100 a month, plus transportation fees, the best amateur baseball players in the country have competed for the equivalent of barnstorming all-star teams and vied for personal recognition in weekend showcases.
Beginning this year, Mike Spiers is bringing his club-team setup to directly compete against the high school baseball season.
Then, from February to May, the club leagues dispersed in order to allow these players to represent their local high schools and contend for team championships.
The two entities acknowledged each other somewhat begrudgingly: While some high school coaches harbored a long-simmering distrust of any club ball coach who might undermine their authority, some club coaches viewed high school competition as an inferior yet unavoidable piece of the baseball experience.
The game’s elite have navigated cautiously. It is through club leagues and showcases that a player attracts the attention of scouts, and during the high school season that he proves his talent in a competitive game environment.
These worlds traveled parallel paths — until now.
“In the perfect world, a high school coach would acknowledge club’s place, and a club coach would acknowledge high school’s place,” said Jon Paino, the former varsity baseball head coach at Temecula Valley who is working with Spiers to establish the club league.
“And it would be a perfect relationship. But in some areas of Southern California, that’s not the case,” Paino said.
At the center of the controversy is Spiers, a Redlands resident with a lifetime of baseball experience and a Rolodex of connections. Since 1992, Spiers has helped run the ABD Academy, a club baseball program based out of San Bernardino that counts some of Southern California’s best amateur ballplayers as clients.
Through ABD, Spiers has helped launch the major league careers of Greg Dobbs (Philadelphia Phillies), Reed Johnson (Chicago Cubs), James Parr (Atlanta Braves) and Tommy Hanson, who played at Redlands East Valley and Riverside Community College, and is considered one of the top prospects in minor league baseball.
Spiers, a stocky man with wispy black hair, had been comfortable operating at status quo, thanks to a California high school regulation known as the Association Rule. The rule placed limits on the amount of instruction a high school coach could provide out of season, which encouraged players to seek club programs in the winter.
But in April, the California Interscholastic Federation — the state’s governing body for high school athletics — did away with the Association Rule. As a result, Spiers said, some high school coaches flexed control by discouraging their players from playing elsewhere in the offseason.
Coaches issued ultimatums, Spiers said, and some athletes who participated in offseason activities were cut from their high school teams in the ensuing power struggle.
“We’re going to be unpopular with most high school coaches,” Spiers said of the decision to go head-to-head. “The thing is, we’re already unpopular. That’s why they’re making the demands. We’re just going to create another option.”
The league, set to begin March 1, will draw between six and eight teams from across Southern California. They will play 32 to 36 games at junior college and high school venues. ABD will field two teams, for which participants will pay about $600.
Spiers, who doubles as a scout for the Atlanta Braves, said he has received nearly 70 player commitments. His early plan is to build the league with a mix of underclassmen and varsity players who were cut from high school teams.
Mike Spiers’ spring league could force players to decide between being on a club teams vs. playing high school ball.
By catering — at least at first — to underclassmen and those who have soured on the high school system, Spiers hopes to build the foundation for a league that will someday attract the elite players: players like Brooks Pounders, a senior at Temecula Valley High School who has a baseball scholarship to USC.
Pounders, who said he owed his rapid baseball progression to club baseball coaches like Spiers and Steve Trombly, considered joining the club league if only for the status as a trendsetter. But after deliberating with his family, he chose to remain with his high school.
“It’s not well established, but it will be soon if you get some of the top guys to go play in it,” said Pounders, a pitcher and third baseman. “It’s going to be pretty big in a couple of years. I have a feeling some guys are going to start leaving high school ball.”
After being cut from the junior varsity team at Los Osos High School in Rancho Cucamonga, 16-year-old Kyle Butcher thought his baseball career had come to an end.
“My life was over,” said Butcher, now a junior. But then Butcher, who has played with ABD since January 2008, heard about the spring baseball league through Spiers.
“I had nowhere else to go,” he said. “I know this was the place I wanted to be. I thought it was great because I’ve had a good experience (with ABD). It can only get better.”
When it became clear to Kristi Hanousek that her son Chad would not make the varsity team at Palm Desert High School, she enrolled him in the spring league with Spiers. Club ball, Kristi Hanousek said, allowed her son to compete for a starting position based on his own merits, as opposed to the tryout system at Palm Desert she claimed had become largely political.
“I’m used to that charge,” said Palm Desert baseball coach Darol Salazar, a 24-year veteran of the high school. “That’s OK with me, I don’t have an ego. I don’t care why they rationalize why their kid’s not making the varsity.”
Said Kristi Hanousek: “This is the first year of a new thing, so we don’t know how it’s going to turn out. I’m sure there will be some blips along the way. But the things we know for a fact is he will get quality playing time, quality instruction and an opportunity to be seen.”
But high school baseball coaches and administrators worry that may create a pay-for-play mentality. And the high school experience offers more than a chance to compete for scholarships, coaches said.
The CIF will hold its baseball championships at Angel Stadium this year and offer players the opportunity to compete for championship rings. The camaraderie and personal growth is enough reward for some, coaches said.
“If kids want to walk away from that experience, good luck,” said Fontana Kaiser baseball coach Mike Spinuzzi. “Because they’re going to lose a lot from that.”
Although the CIF would have no jurisdiction over any club leagues, the organization is monitoring its progress closely.
“I think the high school programs are about the total student-athlete, and club programs are focused on the athlete as a baseball player,” said CIF assistant commissioner Rob Wigod, who coached high school baseball for 17 years.
“I’m not trying to begrudge or be critical of club coaches or private instructors,” Wigod said. “I just know — to me — the high baseball experience was a great one, as a player, as a coach, and as a CIF administrator.
“I’d love to see it continue because it’s worth it.”
Reach Michael Becker at mbecker@PE.com