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Hardball

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From left, KB diving back to first base; with his Tri-State Arsenal teammates.  

KB’s life since, like many travel-ball kids’ lives, has been almost entirely devoted to baseball. In addition to Arsenal, KB has played on his school team, a local all-star squad, two other travel teams that compete mostly in New Jersey, and a second national travel team. During the summer, KB would play two or three games locally during the week; make the drive down to Voorhees once or twice a week for Arsenal practice; and then head out on the weekends to Michigan, South Carolina, or wherever, for tournaments. During the school year, the travel schedule is less arduous, but KB still plays and practices with several teams, and he and Karl often work out after school. KB’s baseball bag holds nearly $2,000 worth of gear. There are three $400 aluminum bats, a $400 Rawlings glove, and a pair of $200 Oakley wraparound sunglasses. Karl’s baseball-related expenses total some $20,000 a year. KB doesn’t watch his diet or take supplements, but he says he has played with kids who take creatine and has heard rumors of slightly older local kids using steroids.

KB’s ultimate dream, of course, would be to play professionally, ideally in the major leagues. More realistically, he’d like to play for a top college program, or at least use baseball to enhance his chances of getting into college. “Maybe he gets good enough, and baseball gets him into Princeton through the back door,” says Karl. Professional scouts and college coaches don’t seriously start looking at players until they’re 15, but travel-ball websites maintain national “players to watch” lists of 13-year-olds, and there’s a kind of downward pressure to excel at an early age. “The question is, would KB be playing for an elite 15-year-old team if he didn’t play elite thirteens?” Karl says.

The odds of even an elite young player making it to the major leagues are, for the record, beyond remote. In the 50-year history of the Little League World Series, more than 5,000 kids have played in the event. Fewer than 40 of them have made it to the majors. But what if your boy is the next Jeter? Shouldn’t he have the best training he can get? Isn’t that what you’d give him if he were an ace violinist?

There are just enough outsize success stories to keep parents and kids dreaming. Just three years ago, the most talked-about 13-year-old player in the country was a Las Vegas boy named Bryce Harper. He played on five different teams when he was 12. In June, Harper was on the cover of Sports Illustrated as the next can’t-miss kid. He is expected to be a top-ten draft pick in 2010 and could sign for a bonus worth $10 million.

“That 3-1 pitch was meat. You have to hit that,” KB’s father says. “That’s why you’re on this team.”

On a brilliant summer afternoon, Karl and KB head to a Toms River diamond for a workout. Karl lugs a bucket of balls onto the field and begins hitting grounders to KB at shortstop. At times, Karl seems more like a buddy to KB than a dad. He playfully refers to KB as “my brotha.” (At a restaurant in Florida, I saw Karl harmlessly flirt with a waitress. “Dad, she’s like 20,” KB said. “C’mon.”) Next Karl fires balls at KB from a few feet away. KB catches the ball and drops it while Karl throws the next one, and so on, in rapid-fire succession. “I picked this up from an Ozzie Smith video,” says Karl, wiping his brow. “I talk to a lot of coaches about drills. It’s all about repetition.” Later, Karl joins KB in 200-yard wind sprints. KB starts fast but quickly downshifts to a trot. Karl goes full-out the whole way.

Growing up in small-town Roseland, Karl was himself a dominant Little League player. “I still see guys who remember that I hit three homers in a game,” Karl says with a smile. But for high school, his parents sent him to Seton Hall Prep, 30 minutes away in South Orange. He had no ride home, so he didn’t play baseball.

“When I got to be 18, I went off to Rutgers and was playing ball behind the dorms,” Karl says.

KB interrupts with a melodramatic sigh. “Oh, I hear this story all the time,” he says.

Karl is undeterred. “Anyway, I was really hitting the ball, and running down every fly ball, and people were asking me why I didn’t play for the school. I can’t turn back the clock, but I always thought I could have been something. That’s always been a little bit of a regret. I don’t want KB to have that regret. I never took grounders; I’ve been hitting grounders to KB since he was 5.”


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