Karl is an an orthopedic surgeon who was raised in northern New Jersey. KB’s mother, Linda, is a radiologist whose family barely escaped the fall of Saigon. Karl and Linda met in medical school. KB, who turned 14 in June, is the oldest of the couple’s three children. His younger brother, Kevin, is 12, and his sister, Kiera, is 2.
KB just started ninth grade, but he stands over six feet tall and weighs 165 pounds. He has striking Asian-American features that would not look out of place on a CW drama. He is friendly and humble and smiles a lot. He doesn’t take himself too seriously: He laughs off the fact that a white teammate lists him on his phone list under “VC.”
KB started playing T-ball when he was 5. At first, he wasn’t that interested. Soccer was his sport. But Karl loved the game, and started hitting KB ground balls for an hour every afternoon. “I didn’t start loving it until I was 7,” says KB. “That’s when the dads started pitching, and I could really hit. Before that it was boring.”
At first, KB was merely good, not great. But around age 9 or 10, he started pitching shutouts and was one of the first kids his age to hit a home run. In one game, he put his team ahead with a triple, then came in as a pitcher to notch the save. “I thought, ‘I’m not just okay, I’m really good at this,’ ” KB says. “It was pretty cool.”
Little League players are assigned to teams through a draft; fathers can coach their own sons’ teams if the league approves. Several coaches approached Karl and asked him to join their staff. That way, they hoped, they could automatically get KB. League officials said no way. KB made all the Toms River Little League all-star teams. By sixth grade, the whole town wanted to know where he’d go to high school.
At home, Karl built a state-of-the-art practice facility for KB and Kevin that included a batting cage, a pitching mound, and stadium lights for nighttime workouts. The third story of the family’s house was converted from a media room into an indoor training facility. No matter how cold it got outside, Karl could still toss KB ground balls and have his son hit 50 pitches a day into a net.
KB and Karl would watch Mets broadcasts every night and dissect the players’ games. “Jose Reyes has always been my favorite,” KB says. “He seems to have a lot of fun playing, but I don’t know where his head is sometimes.”
By the time he was 12, KB was dominating Toms River baseball. He started the 2008 season 17 for 17, with eight home runs. He didn’t strike out until his 85th at-bat, and wound up batting .900 for the season. “I just felt awesome, like every day was going to be a great game. I literally came through in every game except one.”
KB and Karl had already begun seeking bigger baseball challenges. In the summer of 2007, KB had played for a Toms River Little League all-star team in a tournament held in Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame. The team did well in the first round, but got slaughtered by several travel teams in the second round. They lost one game 27-0.
“I want to play on a team like that,” KB told Karl.
Karl contacted a team called the Boys of Baseball, an Alabama-based national travel squad that cherry-picked top players from across the country. They’d meet in Florida, say, or Tennessee for tournaments, and dominate based on sheer talent. KB persuaded his dad to fly him to Troy, Alabama, for a tryout. Steve Cosgrove, the team’s hard-driving coach and a renowned figure in teen baseball, put KB and other prospects through six hours of drills. The sun faded, and Cosgrove began to walk off the field. All he said was, “I’ll see you in Gainesville in December.”
“Does that mean KB made the team?” Karl asked.
“That’s what it means,” said Cosgrove.
KB played with the Boys of Baseball for one season. But in September 2008, Cosgrove disbanded the team and published a cri de coeur on his website. He argued that travel baseball had become too much about winning at all costs. (He had a point, even if he was partially responsible for creating the problem.)
That winter, a friend told the Blums about a travel coach named Bob Barth. Barth is six-one, close to 300 pounds, and in his early thirties. He and his father run an elite baseball clinic called the Hit Doctor Baseball and Softball Academy, housed in an enormous warehouselike building in Voorhees, New Jersey, about an hour and a half from Toms River. The Barths manage 32 travel teams for boys from 9 to 18 years old. On a typical winter Saturday, up to 500 kids make their way through the Hit Doctor facility, some paying $75 an hour for personal instruction. Bob also serves as a part-time scout for the San Francisco Giants. The Blums signed KB up for Barth’s 13-and-under Tri-State Arsenal team. KB joined the team in March.