New Jersey Super-17 Program
by Joe Nardini
If you believe that practice makes perfect when it comes to playing baseball, wait until you see the New Jersey Super-17 Program that Jack Cust Baseball Academy (JCBA), in collaboration with three other premier training centers in the state, will unveil in 2005. New Jersey Super-17 easily ranks as the most innovative concept in youth baseball to hit the Garden State, since they threw the first pitch in Babe Ruth League baseball a half-century ago.
Dave Gallagher - professional training experience
Together with Joe Barth’s Hit Doctor Baseball Academy in Cherry Hill, Dave Gallagher’s All American Baseball Academy in Millstone, and Garett Teel’s Baseball & Softball Training Center in Fairfield, JCBA will host a high-profile summer league of six teams, each comprising the best young baseball talent from every corner of the state.
As the NJ Super-17 website at www.jackcustbaseball.com explains, the program will “provide education, evaluation, development, competition, and exposure to the top 17-and-under baseball prospects, under the direction and supervision of outstanding baseball instructors, utilizing the finest state-of-the-art facilities on the east coast.” If that program description sounds ambitious, then you get the point.
Bob Barth - the business half
of a father and son team
Joe Barth believes that the Super-17 Program will provide an unprecedented showcase of the mostly highly talented baseball players in the state, and possibly on the east coast. According to Barth, Super-17 will “validate New Jersey baseball talent” as never before. He should know. In the past seven years alone, players from his AAU and American Legion teams have landed starting roster spots on college squads in Virginia, Iowa, Florida, and Nebraska. Joe makes no bones about his belief that “New Jersey is one of the top areas in the nation” for producing baseball players of the highest caliber.
With talented ball players always being courted for scholastic and recreation league teams, one may wonder how the NJ Super-17 Program will co-exist with the high schools, the American Legion teams, and the various traveling teams that play throughout the season, from April through the fall months. Coach Barth echoes an assurance given also by Jack Cust, Dave Gallagher, and Garett Teel that the Super-17 games will take place at times that do not conflict with other teams’ schedules.
All four of the Super-17 coaches are unified in their stated commitments to “work collaboratively” with other baseball programs to avoid conflicts at all costs.
Super-17 teams will place the greatest emphasis on training and development of the finer aspects of playing the game, along with the physical and mental preparation that correspond with competing at the highest, championship levels. Both Barth and Teel stress the absolute importance of teaching players to “work harder on the right things.”
Barth especially speaks of making baseball “measurable” by evaluating such specific skills as running speed, arm strength, bat accuracy, quickness into and through the hitting zone, upper body power and lower body explosiveness, ball exit speed from the bat, and hitting zone potential. Cust points out that major league scouts assess their prospects across these and a wide range of additional factors, including power frequency and baseball instinct. All of these criteria and more comprise the training focus of the NJ Super-17 Program.
Teel, a product of the Los Angeles Dodgers minor league system, credits the Dodgers as “the best teaching organization in baseball.” He cites as irrefutable evidence the fact that their training philosophy and regimen produced Rookies of the Year in six straight major league seasons, from the late-1980s through the mid-1990s.
At the Garett Teel Baseball and Softball Center, aspiring young players learn what Teel calls “patterned practice…a routine of self-discipline, a recipe for success.” Dave Gallagher, himself a former player in the Atlanta Braves organization, adds that young players, after years of practicing the wrong mechanics, must relearn how to play the game.
All will tell you, however, that learning the proper fundamentals of fielding, base running, hitting, and executing game strategy occupies a seat on the bench when it comes to having the right attitude. While possessing the physical skills of baseball can mean the difference between reaching the big leagues and relegating oneself to dreams of what might have been, having the right attitude for the game separates roster players from champion players.
Both Cust and Teel emphasize the need to teach proper concepts and the correct approach to the game. Effective teaching of baseball equates with teaching a structured, disciplined approach to life. Only then can players understand the team concept that forms the underpinning of the best game on earth. Teaching a correct approach to the game will, as Coach Teel explains, “help the marginal player become better and the exceptionally talented player to realize the limits of his potential.”
Coach Teel likes to tell the story behind Derek Jeter’s now famous ball flip to get an otherwise un-makeable out at home plate. Perhaps you recall the play, when Jeter took an errant throw from the outfield along the first base line and, all in the same motion, caught the ball and made an acrobatic, backhand flip to his catcher for a putout that would not have happened, except that Jeter had put himself in position to make the play. According to Teel, Jeter, when asked why he stationed himself along the first base line to begin with, simply answered, “Instinct. It’s what I was trained to do.”
Trained to do? Since when does a shortstop receive training to position himself along the first base line at any point during a ball game?!? Jeter’s explanation answers that question better than anyone at the youth league level might imagine. Jeter’s training taught him that, when he is not directly involved in a play, to place himself in position to make a play, if needed. On a ball hit into the right field corner, a difficult play for most right fielders, especially due to the crazy caroms the ball can take in the extreme corners of many big league ball parks, the play will result in a triple or, possibly, even an inside-the-park home run.
In that situation, a runner from first base and even the batter himself might continue to home plate in a mad dash to try to score a run while the ball is out there bouncing around. On the play that Jeter made, the best throw that the right fielder could manage, by the time he finally could corral the ball, was a hurried, off-line throw into the infield - to no one in particular, as it turned out. Except that Jeter’s baseball instincts told him to put himself in position to make a play. Jeter’s training put him instinctively where he needed to be in order to make a relay to his catcher, thereby turning a potentially big play by the offense into a big play instead for the defense.
Teel relishes in telling this story because it crystallizes the purpose and mission of the Super-17 program. Practice makes perfect, provided the practice focuses on the right aspects of the game. Derek Jeter’s heads-up play emphasizes that players can make a difference in the outcomes of games by playing with intelligence as well as with their physical gifts.
Speaking of players’ physical gifts, few sports related topics irk Jack Cust more than the issue that will not go away – namely, the unfortunate, seemingly never-ending problem of performance enhancing substances. As much as anything, Cust wants young athletes to know that they can aspire to great heights in baseball through proper training and conditioning, both physical and mental, “without drug enhancements.”
In talking with Coach Cust one soon realizes that, although understated, that perspective, that mission, energizes his vision for the Super-17 program at least as much as the showcasing of New Jersey’s extraordinary baseball talent to college and professional scouts. Lovers of baseball throughout the Garden State may take heart that, as the tabloid sensationalism emerging from professional athletes’ abuse of steroids continues nipping away at the integrity of the game, the purity of purpose defined by the NJ Super-17 Program reinvigorates it each time one of the program’s players takes the field.
With messages like these coming from knowledgeable professionals like Barth, Cust, Gallagher, and Teel, young ball players cannot help but gain a new respect for their bodies and their minds as they mature through their adolescence and teenage years. That messages like these still exist in youth sports bolsters hope that young people may, in fact, continue to learn important values of life from their early experiences in competitive sports. A refreshing reality, indeed, amidst the growing controversy surrounding illegal use of steroids and other performance-enhancing substances.
Hunterdon County Baseball looks forward to following the exploits of the Super-17 Program and its players throughout the 2005 season. In the Fall ’05 issue, HCB will provide a comprehensive assessment of the new league’s first full year of operation. In the meantime, we wish Coaches Barth, Cust, Galagher, and Teel the best of luck as they embark on their ambitious undertaking. We especially hope, and expect, that college and professional scouts will take notice as never before of the abundance of baseball talent that exists both in the Garden State generally as well as right here in Hunterdon County.