California Winter League 2018

We took our first trip of the season last month (February 11th & 12th) to visit beautiful Palm Springs , CA to see the California Winter League competition at Palm Springs Stadium.

The California Winter League is a baseball developmental league formed with the idea of helping amateur players grow their skill sets and give eligible players an opportunity to be seen by real scouts in the higher ranks of professional baseball. Their motto is literally “Get Better. Get Signed.” Players attend with the opportunity to coached and drilled by an array of former pro ballers, working out, doing drills, and taking instruction in order to raise their game to a level that can earn them an opportunity to play professional baseball.

The 2018 season of the CWL is its ninth season. League owner and president Andrew Stark formed the league in 2009. After that first year of play over 50% of the players in the league were given invitations to a Spring Training camp. Word of the league’s early success got out, and in 2011 the number of players participating doubled. More players and the successful development of this talent led to the league then expanding to five teams and in 2013, with 156 players and eight teams, an astounding 50% of the players were offered pro contracts, with the elite 3 going on to an MLB opportunity through the Rangers, Phillies, and Diamondbacks organizations. In 2015 there were over 200 players. After check ins and two days of workouts, the 2018 competition was set at 209 players on 10 rosters.

Players arrive at camp and spend the first two days in workouts where every player is evaluated and scored on their current talents and abilities. After the second day of workouts the scouts, evaluators, and league officials sit down and analyze their findings and proceed to divide the players into the 10 teams that will compete in the CWL this year. The teams are organized into two divisions called the Canada Division and the USA Division. Each league is made up of 5 teams with their own colorful identity. Teams are branded as “Washington Blue Sox” or “Oregon Lumberjacks” or the British Columbia (B.C.) Bombers.” Once teams are assembled bonds quickly form between the players and the focus quickly shifts and settles on winning baseball games and getting to the championship.

In a brief conversation with Mr. Starke, he explained that there are a variety of roads that bring players to the CWL. All players had to have minor league experience, independent league experience, college level baseball, or be a “referral” player from inside the baseball community.  Many of these players are guys that weren’t drafted, aren’t currently being scouted or pro, but definitely deserve a second look and a chance for development. In the great baseball pyramid they may have been players who were just injured at the wrong time, at a low-profile college or might have otherwise fallen through the cracks.

One path to the CWL that I found particularly interesting was the one traveled by the players of the “Coachella Valley Snowbirds.” The Snowbirds team is the international addition to the league. All of the players that are on the Snowbirds’ roster have come from various leagues in Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. This group skews towards younger players, though there are two players on the roster listed as 25 or older. Many of these players are playing out of their home countries for the first time.  I can only imagine the thrill for them of being in the USA, in California, and playing baseball around a professional caliber of competition that will send them back home with a new perspective on workouts and training.

It’s also worth noting that the CWL is in partnership with the independent Frontier League as their winter program. Mr. Starke’s own Palm Springs Power is one of the teams in the league. The opportunity to play winter ball keeps players sharp and provides ongoing development as they prepare for their summer season.

While there is a great spectrum of talent in the pool, don’t be fooled; these games can be very competitive. These young athletes are hungry to earn the opportunity to be playing a higher level of baseball and show their best self to the group of evaluators and scouts in attendance. The players are taking instruction honing defensive fundamentals, improving their swing, and learning the fine art of balancing discipline and aggression on the base paths.

Oregon Jacks infielder Christopher Johnson is in Palm Springs by way of San Antonio, Texas. Chris is one of the veteran players to take advantage of the exposure to the pro scouts and at age 26 he conveys a real hunger for his chance. He’s every bit of his 6’ 1” frame and at 235 lbs. Tommy comments that his physique resembles a slightly smaller David Ortiz. I ask Chris about his journey to this experience in the CWL. He’s quick to point out that the crew we are watching are guys that are truly grinding their way toward their opportunity. These are guys that didn’t have private coaches, access to high profile teams or leagues, or financial sponsorship to make their journey easy. For these types of athletes there is real value in receiving guidance and coaching from the caliber of instructors they have here, which include veteran players the caliber of Winston Abreu and Boots Day.

I asked CRB contributing editor Tom DiPietro for his take on the competition.

“What I saw was a bunch of guys that knew how to hit well. These are guys being successful because they’ve learned how to hit what’s being pitched to them and not be the hero every time they step to the plate. It takes a lot for a young player to check the ego and be disciplined on how they hit the ball – squaring up on pitches and hitting to get on base and drive in runs – and not swing for the fences on every pitch.”

I can’t say it’s set up for that purpose, but Palm Springs Stadium helps with that lesson. At 349 feet to the corners and 385 feet to center, home runs are not common, though in one of the games a hitter on the Coachella Valley Snowbirds tore into one fastball that he was able to bounce off the wall just outside the right field foul pole. It was an impressive display of power from the CWL’s import team.

As we enter Tuesday’s games we are in the final days of competition heading toward their championship. With two days to go the standings are as follows:

Tommy and I are excited that the first game of the day is scheduled to be a matchup from the Canada Division’s “North Stars” (9-5) vs “Rush” (8-6). It looks like it’s going to be a competitive game with some talented players that are shaking out to be contenders for the championship. As things go however, the teams were sent to the auxiliary field early to play their game for the scouts that are doing their final evaluations. I have a feeling some of those guys are going to be getting invites to pro ball.

The game switch brings us what was originally the early game at the auxiliary field, the Snowbirds (3-11) vs. the Blue Sox (9-6). It’s our second look at both of these teams since we arrived Monday morning. While the game appears to be a potential blowout, there’s something about the resilience and grit these young men demonstrate that makes every game seem to be a possibility for a win. As the game progresses one of the things I am most impressed with is the Snowbirds’ approach to the competition. These Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese players bring a level of humility, discipline, and respect to the game you will not see exercised by most other players. In a league where a young prospect is comfortable sounding off to an umpire about a pitch call, every Snowbird takes an opportunity to remove their helmet and bow or otherwise salute the umpire at the plate. Every time they bat.

Every at bat is pure focus and every charge down the base path is at full speed. They cheer for their teammates as they take their at bats. It’s clear that they are having fun, shouting “GOOD EYE!” And “ATTA BOY!” It’s fun to see and their energy is contagious. This is fun baseball to watch.

The second game on Tuesday is a matchup between the Canada “A’s” and the Palm Springs Power. The Power is representing well with a record of 9-4 and the A’s have shown good play coming in to the day at 8-6. This is going to be our first look at the Palm Springs Power and I’m interested to see how the representatives of the Frontier League look. It brought us an opportunity to see players like short stop Cletis Avery from Snellville, Georgia. He’s a 5’ 10” 185 lb. athlete that is 22 years old. He bats Right and throws Right and displays solid athleticism. The two teams turn out to be a tremendous match and the game is a real contest. As the Palm Springs sun continues to shine down on us and a gentle breeze blows, I’m enjoying a ballpark hot dog and watching umpires call balls and strikes… in February. This can’t get any better right now.

An incident in the next inning ramps up the tension. The Canada A’s pitcher releases his best stuff for a fastball low. The batter squares up on it and fires a “come-backer” laser that zips straight to the mound, and upon contact with it, shoots up and catches the pitcher high enough to hit him in the face. Quickly coach and trainer jog to the mound to assess the situation. A stunner for sure, he is able to shake off the rough shot and continue in the game. Applause erupts from the stands.

Tommy leans over and reminds me of a quote by the great Jim Kaat. He said, “I didn’t stop pitching because I couldn’t pitch anymore, I stopped because I couldn’t defend myself anymore.”

Local broadcaster Michael Marcantonini points out that “Every team makes the postseason in the CWL. It is set up as a 10-team bracket similar to Major League Baseball’s postseason structure. The playoffs start with the No. 4 and No. 5 seeds in each division playing what was essentially a “Wild Card” game, with the winner moving on to play the No. 1 seed in their respective division.”

At the end of the playoff run, the team known as the Washington Blue Sox, led by coach Winston Abreu, claimed the honors of CWL Champions for 2018. For a group of highly competitive alpha-types, there is no better feeling than winning it all. Coach Abreu is excited to have led a championship team in his first year as a CWL instructor. He is quick to point out that it really is about having fun and enjoying the game.

Players are emerging from this experience with a little more clarity on their path towards achieving their dreams. For some that means accepting an invitation to play in the Frontier League or developing a relationship with a scouting program. For others more “creative” opportunities to be pro are just on the horizon. These opportunities come in the form of international play or coaching programs. Approximately 10% will return to play the CWL again next year.

An old adage crosses my mind. “Persistence beats Resistance” never seemed to ring so true. I admire the level of commitment and work ethic I see in all of the players we talk to. The reality of what they call “the grind” is that these guys sacrifice a lot to earn their opportunity, and while CWL makes them better players, in many ways it makes them better men, too.

Yeah, and baseball in February is really fun.

MP

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