A Tournament Like No Other
Even in the world of travel baseball, the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Association World Championship is unlike anything else. The event brings 88 of the best travel-ball teams in the country and more than 1,500 of the best players in the draft class to the Roger Dean Stadium complex in Jupiter, Fla., where over the course of five days and 13 fields, they play one of the biggest tournaments on the baseball calendar.
The tournament this October celebrated its 20th anniversary. In that time, it has grown into the biggest annual fall event in amateur baseball and a must-see for scouts and college recruiters. The tournament has all but shed its official name and has become synonymous with Jupiter, the city that has hosted the tournament from its inception. In Jupiter, the games start at 8 a.m. and often don’t end until 10 p.m. There is so much baseball and so many highly regarded prospects to see that the scouts and college coaches need golf carts to keep up with the schedule. They race from one field at the spring training complex to the next, from the Marlins side all the way to the Cardinals side, a
third of a mile away, attempting to get as many looks as they can at as many players as they can. For the biggest games, when a likely first-round pick takes the mound under the lights, the carts stack up three or four deep behind home plate and line up along the foul lines all the
way to the fence.
With so many scouts around, Jupiter can make or break a player’s draft stock. But it’s about more than that. Late in the weekend, when the competition moves from pool play to the playoffs, the stakes rise and so do the tensions. The players and coaches are there to win, giving Jupiter an atmosphere that the summer showcases can’t provide.
Off the field, you never know who you will see in the crowds. Former big leaguers watching their sons, general managers sweating it out with their scouts, minor leaguers back seeing their old travel-ball teams, agents, special assignment scouts, national championship-winning college coaches. It’s a cross section of the whole baseball world, all roaming the minor league back fields of the shared spring training complex of the Cardinals and Marlins.
WELCOME TO JUPITER
The tournament came to Jupiter because, at the time, it was the only complex of its kind. Now, it is unthinkable for it not to be held there.
JERRY FORD, PERFECT GAME FOUNDER: “People who haven’t seen this ask me, ‘What’s that like?’ I can’t figure out a word for it. What I call it is the most unusual baseball event there is. When you say that, you don’t come across bragging or overstating.”
FORD: “They had the facilities. Now there’s other facilities around that would serve the purpose. We’ve just never changed. This was the only place at the time that had 12 fields and a stadium. That’s why we have it up here.”
JACK POWELL, TWINS SCOUT: “I hope they leave it alone. I hope they never move it out of Jupiter. If they move Jupiter, that’s like changing the name of the World Series. One thing you ask kids later in the summer is, ‘Are you going to Jupiter?’ Everyone wants to know.”
A NEW SHOWCASE
Nothing like Jupiter existed before the tournament’s creation. Travel ball was much smaller at the time, and while showcases like Area Code Games and East Coast Pro existed, they bore little resemblance to the new tournament.
CHRIS BUCKLEY, REDS VICE PRESIDENT OF PLAYER PERSONNEL:
“It was unique scouting it because we hadn’t seen anything like that. We had seen the Area Code Games and other events like that, but this was one in the fall and it was a bunch of good players at different sites. It’s really progressed. You have to give it up to the Perfect Game people. What an idea. We hadn’t seen anything like that where you had so many games going on (that) you have to be well organized. We’ve become better at scouting events like that. When it first got started it was new to everybody and you weren’t sure how to tackle it. It’s not easy because there are so many games.
BRAD CLEMENT, PERFECT GAME CEO: “As a parent, I remember coming here (in 2001 with his son Jeff, a future first-rounder). It was chilly in Iowa and there’s not much baseball being played in late October in Iowa. To come here and see this—and it wasn’t quite as big a spectacle then, but it was the same thing, just maybe on a smaller schedule. The same things that hit everyone. You can’t really describe the event, but the number of outstanding baseball players and everyone here to watch them was incredible.”
POWELL: “We were dealing with the two complexes. You’ve got 12 fields. We weren’t prepared for it, and there were no golf carts. It was all walking. Back in 1998, scouts at that time, we wore loafers and long pants and we, like a lot of people in the South, didn’t wear socks with loafers. Your feet let you know you needed socks. It rained and that’s where the sneakers came into play a lot. Even with the bosses that were there—the scouting directors, different people—they were all looking for the same tennis shoes and sneakers that we were. It was different. A lot of walking back and forth, trying to figure everything out, where teams were playing, where the prospects were. It was show up, buy your book, have an idea of your better pitchers and hitters and where they were playing and what time—but then you had all the second- tier guys maybe you saw a little bit over the summer, trying to run them down. It was an experience on how to get organized.”
HERE COME THE CARTS
It’s now impossible to imagine Jupiter without golf carts and they are one of the things that first-timers are told about the event. A record 341 were brought in this year, with weekend rentals going for $500. But it wasn’t always that way.
FORD: “It wasn’t the first year we were down here, but I think maybe by the second or third year they showed up because people just got tired of walking. I think my wife had gotten in contact with a golf cart company, a different one than we use now, to see if they could provide golf carts if people wanted them. Back then the teams and people who wanted golf carts would sign up for them right through us. We don’t have anything to do with them anymore. Once you spend four days going back and forth and you can’t get to the game you want to get to in time and all that.”
POWELL: “Somebody who showed up in (1999 or 2000), somewhere in there, they needed a golf cart and they got permission from Perfect Game and the Marlins and the Cardinals. That’s how the golf carts came about. The next year there were like a dozen golf carts available and it was first come, first serve. All the scouting directors were fighting over them. Then there was 15-20, then 30—one for each team—then 100. Now there are 300 golf carts.”
BUCKLEY: “Who goes to a baseball game to watch a baseball game in a golf cart? Nobody does. If you go to Clemson to watch them play, you’re not in a golf cart. But (Jupiter is) so spaced out, it was a good idea to help us cover (players) more efficiently. It’s hard to walk the whole thing. You’re at one end and somebody calls you and the pitcher’s pitching. It’s a lot easier to navigate it with a golf cart.”
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THE BIG PRIZE
Jupiter has also become the biggest prize in travel ball. There are other big tournaments, but Jupiter holds a special position in part because of its history, its place on the calendar and the quality of teams and players. That puts winning at a high priority for the participants.
FORD: “We’ve seen a lot of weird stuff happen in the playoffs. It’s just all competition. Its dog eat dog and they do care. They want to win. I know one year, I can’t mention the team because I don’t want them to be famous for this, but they had a kid pitching who, by the way, ended up being a first-rounder, they had a kid pitching and they were just riding him. He had thrown a quarterfinal game to get them into the semifinals, he threw the whole game and won. They were in the very next game, it got to be the fifth inning and I saw the kid warming up in the bullpen. I actually walked out there and said, ‘Hey, you’re not going to pitch, are you?’ He says, ‘I think so.’ I say, ‘Hey, listen, you shouldn’t pitch.’ I can’t control the teams, but I thought maybe I could get through to the player. I said, ‘You shouldn’t pitch.’ I can’t remember what exactly took place there, but I think he went into the dugout after he was warming up and I think he told the coach, who I know very well—I don’t think the kid knew who I was, he probably thought I was a scout or whatever—that that guy over there told me I shouldn’t pitch. He never got back up. But they were going to throw him. That just shows you how competitive this stuff gets.”
CHANGES IN THE GAME
Such a scene couldn’t take place today because Perfect Game adopted the MLB and USA Baseball Pitch Smart initiative, meant to help prevent overuse injuries. Over time, Jupiter has received criticism for its late date, falling at a time when some pitchers need rest, especially those whose high school seasons start in January or February. As arm care receives more attention, it has been more common for the top arms to sit the event out.
DAVID RAWNSLEY, PERFECT GAME VICE PRESIDENT OF PLAYER PERSONNEL: “One thing that’s happening now this year that’s a reflection on the changes in the game as a whole is I don’t think we’re seeing as many of the highest level pitchers here because of the way arms are being managed now, with pitch counts, with innings. Everybody in baseball is so much more cognizant about that, which is a positive.”
POWELL: “Even though the top guys aren’t going, and I get it, there’s still good pitchers there. They show up, perform and elevate themselves.”
Throughout the years, countless big leaguers have played in the tournament. And watching those players the fall before their draft year is really what Jupiter is about.
FORD: “I remember one night here, several years ago, I watched the Indians Scout Team. They had a stacked team. They must have had eight or nine future big leaguers on that team, but Jose Fernandez was pitching against them. I’m telling you, on that night, believe me if you’d have seen him, you’d have said the same thing that I said—nobody could hit him in the big leagues right tonight. That’s how good his stuff was. And a couple years later he’s in the big leagues, tearing it up. I remember watching Mike Trout play here and he was kind of a big surprise to us just how good he was at pretty much everything. But I would never in my wildest dreams have predicted that Mike Trout would be this Mike Trout. That’s the fun part, getting to see these players.”
POWELL: “(Scott) Kazmir, I remember seeing him down there. That place was packed. He dominated. He took himself to a higher level. We all knew he was good, and then he pitched down there, and it was even better. He carried that into the spring. That’s the one that really stands out to me. There’s been so many good ones come through there. It’s hard to find just one, but that one sticks out the most. It was so impressive. It was a late game, (but) everyone stuck around to see it and it was well worth the time.”
THRIVING OVER THE YEARS
Even as baseball has changed over the last 20 years, with the rise of travel ball and fall ball, Jupiter has persisted and thrived. Perfect Game has spun off two Jupiter-like tournaments for younger players, the underclass event in Fort Myers, Fla., and the freshman tournament in West Palm Beach, Fla. But Jupiter stands alone. There is nowhere quite like it in terms of competition and prominence in the industry.
CLEMENT: “I think it’s the authenticity, the genuineness of the event. It hasn’t changed a lot. We just want the best players to be in a premier event, playing for keeps and enjoying the game. Everyone, to a person, who comes says ‘wow’. I was just talking to some people today. They had never been here, (but) they had heard about it. It’s hard to describe, but it was such an enjoyable experience. It truly is one of the signature amateur events that they’ll always remember, especially from a team perspective.”