published Sunday, July 11th, 2010

East Cobb now MLB pipeline

MARIETTA, Ga. -- Guerry Baldwin has been called a visionary, a pioneer -- and some things not suitable for print.

The founder of East Cobb Baseball, Inc., Baldwin is widely credited with putting Georgia youth baseball on a par with the best in the country. In the recent Major League Baseball amateur draft, five East Cobb players were taken in the first round alone. Several others, including Calhoun High School's Mott Hyde, also were taken, adding to the 150 East Cobb alumni already playing professional ball.

Four members of the National League All-Star team -- Atlanta's Jason Heyward and Brian McCann, Washington pitcher Matt Capps and Chicago outfielder Marlon Byrd -- are East Cobb alums. Nearly 800 East Cobb players have earned college baseball scholarships. From 2007 to '09, East Cobb teams won 40 national championships.

Baldwin, an associate scout for the Braves, noticed one day nearly 30 years ago that many kids weren't enjoying their summer baseball experience. This wasn't about global youth league domination. It was about kids learning to play America's game the right way and having a good time doing it.

"I started to think about how summer baseball could be better, more beneficial to kids," Baldwin said during a rare quiet moment at East Cobb's massive $18 million complex. "So I decided that playing at a higher level of competition, having like players playing against one another -- in other words, very competitive, good players playing against very competitive, good players -- was a good thing because in most summer leagues back then that wasn't the case. You would have three or four good players on a team and the rest of them would not be having a lot of fun because they weren't competitive.

"That's how it started: How to do a better job of allowing kids to have fun with the game by playing at the level they can play at, whether it be high school or beyond. It's always been about kids' baseball first -- fun with the game so they would want to be there -- and getting better. It's not so much about winning. Now, competitive kids are going to compete, so they do."

This is the third summer Matthew Crownover has played for East Cobb's top program in his age group, the Astros. The rising Ringgold High School junior is recognized as one of the top pitchers in his class in the country. He committed to Clemson University following his freshman season and already has played with or against some of the country's top youth competition, including this year's top draft pick, Bryce Harper, and Georgia draftees Kaleb Cowart, Delino Deshields Jr., Jake Skole and Chavez Clark.

David Crownover is convinced his son has benefited greatly by having the chance to play in East Cobb. After beating East Cobb's top team as a 12-year-old, Matthew was asked to try out for the Astros, and at 13 he began playing for them. By the end of the season, still an eighth-grader, Crownover had received hundreds of letters from interested college programs.

"I can't explain how big a deal it is to play for the Astros," David Crownover said. "Some people ask us why we play there. The first time he pitched, there were six SEC and four ACC schools watching us. You can't get that everywhere. It's been the best thing in the world for him."

Calhoun's Jordan Poole, who's headed to Ole Miss on a scholarship, had a similar experience. After making the 16-under Astros following a tryout, the 6-foot-3 first baseman quickly shot up the recruiting rankings.

"He made Guerry's team at 16 and that really catapulted him," said his father, Blake Poole. "It's one of the most watched teams in the country, and everywhere he went there were scouts all over the place. Jordan played on the team with Jake Skole, Chavez Clark and Kaleb Cowart, and every one of the players on that team were either drafted or got Division I scholarships."

Most high school coaches would be concerned if their top players were competing in 100-game summer league schedules. However, when it comes to East Cobb, few prep coaches have issues.

"We want them to go play the best competition they can play," Ringgold coach Brent Tucker said. "Matthew, Colton Cross and Austin Parrish all play there and we love it. It's a win-win situation because the kids get to see great competition and they get great instruction. If you've got a player capable of playing at the next level, that's where they need to be."

Georgia's Class AA champions from Calhoun also are well-represented in East Cobb, led by Hyde, Poole, second baseman Michael Johnson and pitcher Carter Harrison. It's no coincidence, according to Calhoun assistant coach David Hall, that the Yellow Jackets were able to win three series on the road, including the finals against Cowart and No. 1 Cook County.

"As a coach, you've got to love them participating in that league," said Hall, who coaches with Frank Seabolt on the Boynton Bulldogs, a 19-under Dizzy Dean Senior Division summer team. "Facing the kind of talent they face in the summer, they've already been on the field against top-tier talent. They weren't intimidated playing at Lovett or Cook."

While the elite players have put East Cobb on the map, Baldwin said he gets as much satisfaction in seeing a marginal player grow into a high school starter. He also enjoys knowing that his once-modest program has helped elevate Georgia baseball to elite status.

"We try to get kids prepared to play at whatever level they can play at," he said. "We've had a lot of kids recently get drafted, and that's a great thing. That's probably every boy's dream when they play baseball, to play professionally. There were some really nice things said about Georgia baseball (during the draft) this year, and that's cool. Back when we started this, there was basically nobody getting drafted."

"Now they look at Georgia differently."

about Lindsey Young...

Lindsey Young is a sports writer at the Chattanooga Times Free Press who started work at the Chattanooga News-Free Press 24 years ago. He covers the Northwest Georgia prep beat and NASCAR. Lindsey’s hometown is Ringgold, Ga., and he graduated from Lakeview-Fort Oglethorpe High School. He received an associate’s degree from Dalton Junior College (now Dalton State) and a bachelor’s degree in communications from UTC. He has won several writing awards, including two Tennessee Sports ...

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