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I-94 League's Path to the Draft

Nov 22, 2016 8:51 AM
Dan Napper, Correspondent

You strain against the sun in your eyes as your glove rises awkwardly to block it from your view. You lose sight for a moment of the ball as it passes into the blinding sphere of fire above you and you stumble trying to track as it descends rapidly towards you. In an instant you are unsure if it is going to hit you in the face or fall safely into your glove and then in a split second you pick it up again and settle comfortably underneath. The ball gently falls into your glove like a baby being lain down for an afternoon nap. Part of you looks into your glove with shock and awe, but when you look up at your dad across the lawn you stand proud, defiant, strong, and just a few inches taller. Then as a six year old you three hop the ball back across the lawn to him. But, from that moment on you are hooked. The rush and excitement that comes from trying to hit the ball, then to hit the ball farther and farther still. The challenge to chase down and catch that ball that dad thinks he has thrown too far. Then finally the ability to fire it back to him, not on a couple hops, but on a frozen rope from one end of the yard to another, until dad has to back up, move farther away and never tell you that the last few throws have hurt his hand.

Fast forward ten years later and the wind whips across the lake with a bite that would make a polar bear shiver. The snow is falling in large massive flakes and pilling up around your feet at a rate that seems incomprehensible. The wind chill reads negative twenty and you are walking through the streets of Chicago carrying your baseball bag getting ready to get in your Sunday morning workout. Not exactly the ideal time to be practicing pulling that inside pitch, or taking a ball off the end of the bat, or practicing baseball for that matter.

But, thanks to the members of the Chicago Scouts Association, that is exactly what four young prospects are doing with their time. They hope that their hardwork will pay off with the dream that started in the backyard, with dad throwing that first ball high up into the summer sky.

This idea that came about close to seven years ago was to try and pool together the best travel teams in the Chicagoland and southern Wisconsin area and create a league. The idea being that if all of these teams had the opportunity to play one another on a semi consistent basis that it would only allow those players involved to get better and better as they played against the best from the area. With the help of several other coaches and the Chicago White Sox the I-94 League was born and the fall season kicked the competition off.

Six years later some of the first young athletes are on the verge of a monumental opportunity with the MLB draft just around the corner on June 9th. When you get a chance to sit down and speak to Gavin Lux and Evan Kruczynski who spent their time with the Hitters, Zack Burdi who was part of the Longshots, and Corey Ray who was a member of the ACE program, they all have a very similar response when asked what it was about the league that helped prepare them for the next step as a ball player.

Zack Burdi pitching in the 2008 I94 League“The competition was so tough. From the moment you got there you realized how quickly you were not the big fish in the pond anymore. Everyone was just as good as you, if not better” said Zack Burdi, who is the current closer for the Louisville Cardinals and is predicted to possibly be drafted in the end of the first round.

“My first year up there I was playing with guys a year older than me and seeing how they carried themselves and just how good everyone was gave me something to look at and study. The way so many of these guys played the game at such a high level, I had to work just as hard if I wanted to actually compete on the field with the guys that were in this league.” Gavin Lux is a shortstop out of Kenosha, Wisconsin and of the four young men who may be drafted soon is still only a high school student. He is set to enroll at Arizona State University in the fall, but the draft provides some interesting possibilities for him in a few weeks.

Evan Kruczynski is the current Friday night starter and American Athletic Conference ERA leader for the East Carolina Pirates. But, ask him about his time in the I-94 League and the first thing he will mention is how tough each and every hitter was when he first arrived. “It wasn’t where it was intimidating. The environment just forced you to be better than you already thought you were. I learned very early in my career the importance of each and every pitch because there were guys there at a young age who could make you pay for a mistake.”

“The I-94 league gave us the chance to see live pitching and get six games in on the weekend. Seeing high level pitching on a consistent basis is only going to make you better, as you continue to work, and in turn prepare you for the next step of your career. Luckily, the ACE program gets to spend time with the Bulls/Sox academy so we were able to play indoors during the winter and still see those good strong pitchers during times when other guys are working dry swings inside.” Corey Ray is the centerfielder and teammate of Zach Burdi at the University of Louisville and has the chance to be the highest drafted player from Chicago in over twenty five years.

Gavin Lux in the 2014 I94 LeagueWhen you get a moment to speak to each young man you can hear in their voice the excitement that they have for the upcoming draft, but you can tell how quickly they are to put into the back of their head. For three of the four their focus is on the upcoming postseason with all of them looking to make a trip to Omaha, Nebraska with a chance to play for a national championship. Gavin Lux however keeps quiet and relaxed about his upcoming chances in the draft and prefers to look at where he can improve and continue to hone his skills. He mentions how the I-94 league taught one lesson over and over again really well.

“Learning how to fail and how to deal with failure. Grind through and come back the next day and continue to work hard and compete. Face your adversity and become better because of it.” His uncle Augie Schmit helps keep him grounded after being a first round draft pick of his own and now the head coach at Carthage College.

It is the humility that each one of these young men show that truly makes you realize why they are in a position that so many fail to ever achieve.

Make no mistake, they are good, really good, and they know they are good. But, that is where they separate themselves from their peers. They don’t let the fact that they are good get in the way of what they want to achieve, nor does it stop them from putting in the necessary work to continue to improve. When you speak to each one they all discuss how they need to be better than what they are currently right now.

Evan summed it up perfectly when asked about the fact that such an opportunity is on the horizon. “Have fun with the whole process, don’t look at the draft or become too focused on it. Very few people get the chance to play the game at the level I am at now, or even beyond, so stay grounded and realize it is a game that you get to have fun playing.”

Evan Kruczynski pitching in the 2011 I94 LeagueWhen pushed to discuss what it will mean to be drafted Evan let down his armor just slightly and admitted, “it will be pretty crazy to be drafted, I’m not sure how I will actually feel when it happens, just excited to get a chance with a team. I’ve always said to let my numbers and my play speak for themselves and the rest will take care of itself. When the opportunity is presented I just want to make the most of every chance an organization will give me.”

Very quickly though his tone changes and he moves back to his time currently at ECU and his goal to get his team to Omaha and playing for a national championship. You can tell in speaking to him that he is not a fan of putting his own accomplishments above that of his team and the goals they have set for themselves.

Zack Burdi has a unique talent for a kid his age. His fastball has been clocked at 100 miles per hour on the radar gun from time to time. Which means the ball leaves his hand and is in the catcher’s glove in less than a half a second. Burdi has taken over the closers role from his older brother Nick—who was drafted last year by Minnesota, at Louisville and just like his brother is hoping to be drafted on June 9th.

But, as soon as I bring up the draft he gets excited to speak about the chance that he and his fellow Cardinals have in front of them this postseason. His three years now spent at Louisville has made it easier to balance the workload of school and baseball and he mentions how much fun it is to be playing with this group of guys. When pressed about the opportunity that exists in front of him he put it very simply; “I’m very blessed for the opportunity that I have before me and I will be excited to get a chance to prove myself to a team. It will be emotional, maybe a pinnacle moment for my family, to reach a point so few do after all the years of playing the game I love.”

Burdi jokes how the time at Louisville has taught him to learn to live on his own, but he is exited for the fact that with the new chapter that begins soon, he will get a chance to grow as a man and a ballplayer at the same time.

Corey Ray competing in the 2012 I94 LeagueIt is often too easy for people to see only what is on the surface of a person. What they think they know, but as it is often seen, what we think we know is far from the truth. Corey Ray grew up on the south side of Chicago, an area of the U.S. that is not known for being a baseball powerhouse. But, he fell in love with the game and has made it a focus to become better and better with each game he plays, each inning of the game, each individual at bat that he takes. Ray is a special talent who has a work ethic like few young men his age. When asked about his favorite memory of his time in the I-94 league he brings up the Sunday mornings pushing weight sleds at the Hitters facility with Coach RJ Fergus.

Sled pushes. On a Sunday morning. On cold winter days in Chicago. Most kids won’t get out of bed to go to church on a nice Sunday. Corey Ray decided it was time to put in some extra work outside of the six days a week practicing. It is that work ethic and humility that has Ray on the verge of possibly being the first overall pick on the 9th, but if you ask him he says the draft is simply a stepping stone, a moment of a career that he hopes is one of many years spent playing professional baseball. “When you put everything into the game you expect it to play off. It isn’t going to get any easier, but I only know one way to approach a new challenge: hard work.”

And when it all comes back around that is the theme that you get out of each young man. Ask them about the league and each one mentions how good every player in the league was and still is to this day. But, they will look back and comment how each and every practice, game, coach, and moment was there to make them better. To force them to push beyond what they thought they could possibly accomplish and then get better and then even better. And as each one took to that mentality, absorbed the knowledge that their coaches gave to them, took the extra reps that their body said they didn’t need after a three hour practice, but still did anyway, they became the young men they are today on the verge of something that started all those years ago when a ball first fell dramatically into their mitt.

Ask each young man and you get the same answer: The league, the coaches, the other players. They are all the reason why they, these four, have a chance to do what so many want to do, but never have the talent, or the desire to truly work hard enough to achieve. These four though are different, they are special. That is not said to put them above any other, but when you speak to them, when you hear the passion in their voice about the game, you realize that their humility, more than their talent, is why they have this tremendous opportunity in a few weeks.

Whether they are learning from an uncle who never quite became the player that he was expected to be at the major league level. Or carving your own path as you have a successful sibling who has walked this road before. Then there is the young man who made comment that six years ago he did not even think he was good enough to play college baseball. And finally you have a kid who speaks about how much baseball has given him and how his chance to play professional baseball is a chance for him to give back to the community that gave so much to him.

They don’t speak of their own accomplishments. They talk about their teammates and the accomplishments they have created with them. They speak about the league and the lasting impact is has made on all four of them to this point. They are grateful to the opportunities the I-94 league created for them and how it has helped shape them in their goal to reach the greatest baseball league on the planet.

Says Corey Ray; “all the credit to those guys because of what they do and how they have helped so many kids for so many years. Coach RJ, Ronnel Coleman, Nathan Durst, Kevin Coe, Kenny Fullman, those guys change lives.”  

“To the CSA and all the guys in the I-94 league, thank you for everything you have done and I give my best to all the guys coming along who will be fortunate enough to work with such amazing people,” said Zack Burdi.

The lone high-schooler of the bunch Gavin Lux says; “All the coaches throughout the time were great guys, they knew the game, the offered such great insight to all different aspects of baseball. Just talking and learning from all of them made me better, but it reminded me that it is a game, but it is a great game.”

“They taught me how to play the game the right way and to embrace the challenge that comes from playing against the best competition in the Chicagoland area. Playing for RJ was a blessing,” says Evan Kruczynski

Four different kids with four different paths. Four different roads traveled that have brought them all to the same spot, the same moment in time, where they will hear their named called as so many have dreamed to hear before. They won’t hear it simply because of their natural born talent, they won’t hear it because of the legacy a family member left, and they won’t hear it simply because of the numbers associated with them on the field. They will hear it because they work, and they continue to work to be even better than they already are. Because that is what their coaches taught them to do, that is what developed out of that first excited catch in the backyard and become a goal for these four young men. A goal that they have worked towards daily since they were young.

There is the crack of the bat, the familiar sound of wood, no longer that loud ping that comes from metal. The ball soars high in the air, traveling at well over 100 miles per hour. The sun is blaring down on a hot July afternoon as the feet of the ballplayer continue to move faster and faster. At first the ball seemed to be hit where no one could get to it, where no one could reach, but if you have a focus, a desire, a drive to be what others think they cannot, to push yourself beyond the limits you thought possible. Then this ball simply floats in the beautiful summer sky. And as the ballplayer leaves his feet and extends his body to its absolute farthest the ball hits the back of the glove as they slide on their stomach across the outfield grass. They stand up, throw back in to the cutoff man and hold up one finger signaling how many outs there are in the inning. They don’t hear the roar of the crowd, or the cheers from their dugout, they simply run back to their position, head down, and ready to make the next play.

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