FORT MYERS, Fla. – Team Avenue Baseball, an organization founded and owned by former minor-leaguer Thomari Story-Harden and based in Fresno, Calif., dances to a slightly different beat than most travel ball programs while still chasing the same goal of the more traditional organizations: getting its players to the proverbial next level.
The Team Avenue Aces are entered in this weekend’s PG WWBA 16u Labor Day Classic with the intent of getting as much national exposure as possible. Again, it’s a traditional objective Story-Harden is attempting to achieve in a somewhat untraditional manner.
Team Avenue Baseball is a student-athlete program that, while based in Fresno, assembles teams made up of players from across the nation. The teams are put together to specifically play in only one weekend or weeklong tournament, and then new teams are assembled for subsequent tournaments – new tournament, new group.
“It’s a pretty unique experience because the players have never played together before,” Story-Harden said Saturday morning from the former Boston Red Sox Player Development 5-Plex. “This is a format that we’ve used for the last seven years, and it’s worked. We have our regimented workout times and our education on recruitment, and we try to align ourselves with organizations like Perfect Game because then (the prospects) get that added exposure if they continue to come to our tournaments.
“We put that all together and it makes for a really great experience for a player over the course of three or four days.”
The stated goal of Team Avenue Baseball is to “mentor our student-athletes so that they gain life skills through baseball training that are necessary for success both on off the field.” Team Avenue Baseball teams travel the country – squads will be at the Perfect Game/EvoShield National Championships in Goodyear, Ariz., next month – and have also traveled to the Dominican Republic and China.
The organization conducts tryouts throughout the nation and after the tryouts the players go through a selection process and are placed on a team. Some of the players have been on other Team Avenue squads in the past, but for most it’s a new adventure. The players that are here this weekend tried out specifically for the PG WWBA 16u Labor Day Classic, which explains the large number of Floridians on the roster.
There are 10 prospects from Florida playing for the Aces this weekend, and one each from Massachusetts, North Carolina, Louisiana and Texas. There are seven players from the class of 2015 (high school juniors), four 2016s (sophomores) and three 2017s (freshmen).
All of these young players have very limited Perfect Game experiences and are just starting to get their names out there. None of the 2015s or 2016s are ranked numerically, although right-hander/second baseman Robert Nadel (2015, Winchester, Mass.) is listed as a national “follow” in the PG rankings.
Nadel started and received a no-decision in the Aces’ 6-3 loss to the SWFL Titans Saturday morning. He worked 4 1/3 innings and gave up one earned run on five hits with five strikeouts and three walks, but the bullpen was unable to hold a 3-2 lead, giving up four runs in the bottom of the sixth that led to the loss. Nate Gilmore (2015, Fort Walden Beach, Fla.) was 2-for-2 with a double and an RBI to lead the Aces’ four-hit attack.
You can be sure Story-Harden wasn’t horribly disillusioned by the loss.
“We’ve been really blessed that through our selection process we get some really good kids that are really passionate about playing baseball,” he said. “I always say that baseball is a universal language; you get players from all these different demographics, you put them on a field, you give them a ball, you give them a bat, and they just know what to do from there.
“I’m a very passionate coach and I know our staff is passionate, and then when we get passionate players together it’s like magic,” he continued. “Even if they’re not from the same area (of the country) or maybe they’ve never met, when passionate coaches and players are together it becomes pretty awesome to watch.”
Story-Harden, 33, was an eighth-round draft pick of the Los Angeles Dodgers right out of Cerrito (Calif.) High School in 1998. He played nine seasons of minor league baseball both in the Dodgers organization and in Independent leagues before retiring in 2006. He founded Team Avenue Baseball shortly thereafter.
“I want those same opportunities for our players,” Story-Harden said of his rise into the professional ranks. “If they go to high-profile events like Perfect Game there are more chances of them gaining exposure. And then having coaches that have played at the next level, we can give them something tangible to take with them after they leave us.
“We want to equip them with the fundamental tools that are going to help them achieve their goals and play at the next level – play college baseball.”
He said the timing of this weekend’s event was perfect for assembling a team because the Monday Labor Day holiday means no class time will be missed. Story-Harden will also keep missed class-time in mind when he assembles his teams for the PG/EvoShield Underclass and Upperclass National Championships in the Phoenix area in mid-September. But he also wants to keep his kids involved with PG as much as the schedule allows.
“Perfect Game is an awesome organization that I’ve followed over the years and I always want to align our organization with organizations that are really having a positive impact on the players and giving them the exposure that they need for the next level,” he said. “This weekend worked out with this being Perfect Game, Fort Myers, Florida, and these pristine fields and great weather – you really can’t beat that when it comes to baseball.”
The Team Avenue Aces painted themselves into a corner by losing their first of three pool-play games, at least in terms of advancing to Sunday’s playoff round of the 16u Labor Day Classic (the PG WWBA 18u Labor Day Classic is running concurrently and its playoffs also begin Sunday afternoon). Nothing was out of reach as of early Saturday afternoon, however.
“In anything you do, you have to set your goals high,” Story-Harden said. “First and foremost you control what you can control … and for us as a coaching staff we want to be able to teach as much as possible and teach through positive reinforcement and make sure the players are learning. At the end of the day this is a 16u tournament and while some of the players are very talented, it’s always a learning process.”