By Gabe Ribas
June 11, 2012
I get to see a lot of baseball. When I say a lot, I really mean it. The bulk of my time during the summer is spent watching kids do their best to impress college coaches and professional scouts. I have worked my way across the country, having coached at Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, Northwestern in Evanston, IL, and now here at Santa Clara, and all along the way I have been watching baseball. It borders on a sickness – when I am bored, I turn on a Major League game. I have been to almost every state (minus Alaska) and most Canadian Provinces to play, recruit, instruct, and simply watch guys play this beautiful game. What continues to amaze me is that I still find so much beauty and mystery in this game.
A few years back I had the good fortune to be able to see a Division I college game, a high school game, a Double A Game, an Independent Ball game, and a Major League game, all in the span of 7 days. For a baseball junkie like me this was a dream come true. As coaches we spend a lot of time talking about the differences in every level of play, but it is hard to really notice them until you have a stretch like I did. As you work your way up the ladder the speed and consistency of the game gets higher and higher. Even the best high school games (I saw the #1 team in the country play the #3 team in the country this season) feel like they are being played in mud. Everything is slow. Most guys don’t have the strength yet to generate bat speed or arm speed. Guys don’t run fast. They don’t throw well. A good clean high school game usually consists of 3-8 errors between the two teams. When you watch a Major League game you are shocked to see one error made. The game is played at a high pace and is almost always clean. Pitchers throw strikes, fielders make amazing plays, and almost everyone swings the bat with bad intentions toward the baseball. Sure, big leaguers don’t always “hustle,” but that is generally because they know what they can and can’t do. They go hard when they need to, and make everything else look routine.
So this begs the question– how on Earth do guys like me do our jobs? How can any of us project what 15-18 year-old kids are going to be like when they are 22 year old men? I will tell you this – there are some guys that even a monkey can tell are good. I got a chance to see Bryce Harper in high school and the only thing I could think when I saw him is that he was obviously an alien. His tools are scary. The other guy I remember seeing who was head and shoulders above the other guys on the field was Matt Weiters (now the catcher in Baltimore); when he was at Georgia Tech – total freak show. The game just came easy to him. Let me be very clear, those guys are the exception, not the rule.
What do we do with the rest of the baseball playing population? How is it that guys like David Eckstein and Dustin Pedroia can be told by hundreds of people they are too small and slow to play this game at a high level, yet they dominate day in and day out at the highest level? Why don’t more college coaches get fired when they bring a guy onto their campus on an 80% scholarship and the guy only pitches 10 innings in four years? Why is it that even the guys with the best eyes for finding talent are wrong all the time? To understand the answer, we have to think about how we judge the players we are constantly evaluating. At some point in a long season you have to strike a balance between letting talent simply play, and constantly trying to play at a fever pitch. There are a lot of guys in the world who love playing the game, and will “work hard,” but not all of them have the physical tools to preform at our level or higher. As one of my coaches once said, “I can get a truck driver to try, what I need are guys that get it done!” On the other hand there are guys who are immensely talented who have no work ethic and play the game for the name on the back of their jersey rather than the name on the front.
The one thing that I think I know about life and baseball is that they both take real balance. We look for players that have an understanding of that balance – guys who can play hard, who interact well with their teammates and coaches, while also possessing a skill set and a level of athleticism that will make them successful against some of the best competition in the country. We need guys who are achievers in their lives, but don’t get bogged down by failure. No matter how good you are at this game, you will be force-fed a big piece a humble pie at some point, and being able to adjust, adapt, and work through your failure is what makes a great player. I tell coaches and recruits that I really hope to see a player on his worst day, to see how he responds to a bad performance. Does a guy give into a bad day and become sorry for himself, or does he rally his teammates to pick him up?
When I was going through the recruiting process I heard coaches talk all the time about how they looked at the intangibles, and I never thought it was real. I assumed that you had to run faster, throw harder, and hit the ball farther than the people around you. While you do have to do all those things, you also have to prove that you can pick yourself up when everything is going wrong. Great players have a balance between knowing what makes them great and accepting the coaching that will make them better. We need guys that love being part of the team, but can also take care of their own business.
It takes watching a lot of baseball to understand that you can never truly understand this game. I don’t have a formula for leading a great life, or being a great baseball player, I am not convinced anyone does. I do know that baseball and life take a balance that few people have. I spend my days looking for that balance on those perfect patches of grass and dirt scattered throughout the American landscape. Most of the time I don’t see it, but on those rare occasions that I do, I want to find a way to bring that person into the Bronco culture of relentless development.
— COACH RIBAS