FORT MYERS, Fla. – The scouts and college coaches were dutifully gathered behind home plate at JetBlue Park mid-afternoon on Monday, eager to see a show. The object of their interest was Windermere, Fla., right-hander Austin Bergman, and he was just as eager to please.
It was the second game of the day at the 2014 Perfect Junior National Showcase, and a steamy morning had given way to an even steamier afternoon. Bergner, a 6-foot-4, 180-pound junior-to-be at West Orange High School in Winter Haven, Fla., used a fastball that topped out 93 miles-per-hour to work the count full on the leadoff hitter as menacing clouds moved in from the south of the ballpark.
And just like that, it was game-over. The siren that warns of dangerous lightning in the area blared loudly from beyond the right field fence, the umpires halted play and the players dashed off the field. When play resumed roughly three hours later, Bergner didn’t return to the mound, taking a spot in the outfield instead.
It was disappointing, to be sure, but afternoon thunderstorms are a fact of life during Southwest Florida summers and pretty much hold sway. The fact that this was the highly ranked Bergner’s first-ever appearance at a Perfect Game showcase event didn't really figure into Mother Nature's afternoon plans. But it was especially disappointing because Bergner was really looking forward to the opportunity.
“There’s all that hype about the showcases and how some pretty good players have been out here, so I just wanted to make an appearance and get the experience that all these good players have been receiving with the job Perfect Game does out here,” Bergner said Monday morning before running the 60-yard dash during a workout session. “I just really wanted a chance to be out here with all the other guys.”
Even with six of the top-seven and nine of the top-16 highest ranked national prospects from the high school class of 2016 in attendance, Bergner stood out. He came into the event ranked No. 3 overall, and as an uncommitted junior-to-be, college coaches were perhaps more eager to get a look than were the MLB scouts.
“This is a chance to measure yourself and see where you stand against others at your age level, or maybe even your playing level,” Mark Bergner, Austin Bergner’s father, said Monday morning. “It’s obviously one of the great (stages) for young men to be seen (and) a great opportunity for coaches to see them, scouts to see them. It was easy enough for us to get here … so we made the trip.”
Bergner is old for his class – he turned 17 on May 1 – but has mostly played “up” during his two-year Perfect Game career. He played in the 14u PG BCS Finals and the PG WWBA 16u National Championship with Chet Lemon’s Juice in 2012 – he was named to the all-tournament team at the 16u WWBA event – and followed that up with appearances at eight PG WWBA and two PG BCS tournaments playing for the Florida Burn in 2013.
Last summer, he was selected for the all-tournament teams at the PG WWBA 16u National Championship, the 16u PG BCS Finals and, most impressively, the 17u Perfect Game World Series. He was also a member of the powerhouse Florida Burn team that finished as runner-up to the EvoShield Canes at October’s PG WWBA World Championship in Jupiter, Fla.
Despite a regular presence in the top of the PG class of 2016 rankings and spots on all-tournament teams over the past year, Bergner is not necessarily satisfied with his progression.
“I’m not really settling for anything yet,” he said. “I’m nowhere near where I want to be but I’m definitely pleased that the hard work that I’ve been putting in is definitely showing. That’s exciting to see but I’m more excited to see how my team (the Florida Burn) does this summer because I think we’re going to be pretty good team, especially coming off our first tournament and doing as well as we did.”
The Florida Burn 2016 Pennant got the 2014 tournament season off to a noteworthy start when it won the 16u PG WWBA East Memorial Day Classic two weeks ago here in Fort Myers. Bergner was named to the all-tournament team – his fastball first touched 94 mph at the event – and is certainly enjoying his time with the Florida Burn organization.
“I love the coaches and all the players,” he said. “Our team is pretty good this year. Last summer we were kind of getting use to each and getting to know each other and this summer I think we’re going to play better as a team together. We have a few new kids but those new kids are definitely going to be a better addition to our team and help us win some more events.”
Reaching such a high level of play that is required to be a valuable and contributing member for an organization that has been so successful in recent years as the Burn has been has also required a deep commitment on Bergner’s part.
“I give him a lot of credit,” Austin’s dad said of his son. “He has taken the bull by the horns; he doesn’t wait for me to tell him to do anything. The boy is motivated, he gets out there and trains five or six days a week, and just works and works and works. He’s really grown to be an individual and mature as a young man, I think even sooner than I probably would have thought.”
Coaches Mark Guthrie and Craig Faulkner with the Florida Burn have helped Bergner tremendously, but there were, and still are, others who have contributed. It started with Randy Sullivan at the ARMory Power Pitching Academy in Brandon, Fla. -- he continues to work with Bergner -- and continued when the young pitcher hooked up with former big-leaguer Chet Lemon and The Juice organization.
“These are men that are constantly improving themselves in their professions and learning, and they are guys that can teach,” said Mark Bergner, who spent some time in the 1980s as an assistant volleyball coach at Duke University. “Anybody who I can get my son around that can help teach him, it’s a blessing for me. … The path that he has been on and with the fine mentors that have helped him, everybody has imparted a little bit on him and I can’t thank them enough.”
Parents go to a great deal of expense – in terms of both money and time – to provide this type of opportunity for their children; brothers and sisters can also be asked to sacrifice along the way. When the question “Is it worth it?” is asked, the reply is invariably a short and sweet, “Of course it’s worth it.” Mark Bergner expounded on that reply.
“I don’t know that you can put a price on experience; I don’t know that you can put a price on friendships and memories,” he said. “So for that, if it’s something that he’s passionate about then as a parent I will do what I can to fulfill that passion. … Is it worth it? Absolutely, anytime your child is passionate about something.”
Bergner said he’s going to take his time making a decision about college and hasn’t made all the visits he hopes to make before reaching his decision. On his Perfect Game profile page, he lists Duke, Florida State, Louisiana State, Stanford, Alabama, North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Vanderbilt as among his favorites.
He won’t be eligible for the MLB June Amateur Draft until after he graduates from high school in the spring of 2016 but he admitted he took some interest in last week’s 2014 MLB First-Year Player Draft. Former Florida Burn teammates Michael Rivera (33rd round, Oakland Athletics) and Dalton Guthrie (40th round, Minnesota Twins) were both selected; both have also signed national letters of intent with the University of Florida.
“I was hanging out with a few of my buddies and we were watching the draft, seeing some of their friends get drafted,” Bergner said. “It got me pretty excited; God has blessed me this far and hopefully I can continue to stay healthy and get better every day. I’m excited to see how that goes in 2016.”
Bergner’s Perfect Game showcase pitching debut was short-lived. He’ll have dozens of other opportunities over the next two summers and falls to sample the showcase scene and seemed more than eager to give it another try.
“It’s fun being around all these great players,” he said. “I think it’s a good experience to come out here and play against some of the top players in the country. I enjoy it because it’s really the best competition around. I was out there for only about 10 minutes talking to these guys and some of them are from California. It’s pretty cool that those guys would come all the way down here for this event.”