I was sitting at North County Regional Park in Port Charlotte, Florida watching Ball State put a beat down on Mississippi Valley State in the last game of the day, I was going to head out early since the game got out of hand quickly, I packed up my gear, needed to stop to use the rest room and then hit the road. As I walked from the restroom I noticed a little league practice going on at another field (this was a big complex with 5 fields, I think there is even more), the kids seemed young but looked like they could play ball, there was a man sitting on the bleachers watching the kids and their coach, I assumed he was a dad so I went to talk to him. I have a fascination with “the parents” that get their kids involved with sports at a very high level at a young age, so I wanted to “pick this guys brain”. Besides after a day of hearing, “”Everyone hits”, ‘Let’s roll one”, “Stay hot kid”, “Lets go one- two”… I needed to interact with someone, people who have been around baseball know the sayings and no “Lets roll one” doesn’t mean what you think, it means to turn a double play, if you don’t know what that means… I am honored that you are reading this blog about baseball.
Wayne Harrell, 41, is a parent of 3, a boy and 2 “girly” girls he said with a laugh, I asked if I could use “girly” and he said they wouldn’t be offended. He wasn’t a parent to any of the boys practicing, he was just watching, the team he and now we were watching was a 10U “select” team from North Port. Wayne pointed out the 10 year old shortstop we were watching who was impressively handling all the balls being hit his way, that is the coaches kid and he is talented for a kid his age. Wayne has 3 “select” teams he runs with a partner, the Iron Pigs, he has two 13U teams and one 10U team. Wayne said he likes to keep an eye on what is happening with other teams, plus it makes good business sense, he is President and Coach of the Top Prospect Sports Academy in Port Charlotte which he and his partner opened this past June. He also runs IBC baseball tournaments.
In 1991 Wayne graduated from Fort Piece Westwood High School where he was a catcher on the baseball team, former 10 year MLB veteran catcher Charles Johnson also went to Westwood (class of 1989) and played with Wayne. Wayne started ahead of Charles as catcher, he said with a wry smile, then admitted that Charles didn’t start catching until he attended the University of Miami. After high school Wayne attended Brewton Parker Junior College in Mt. Vernon, Georgia and played baseball for one year, he said that his playing days ended there, “I didn’t have the talent to continue”, he stated with a shrug. He has loved the game since he was a kid and it is just a part of him, he never intended to make it his livelihood, it just happened.
He met his wife Nena at church and got married at a young age and quickly started having kids, his “girly” girls, Kylee (21) and Alise (19) and son Cody (18), all 3 participated in sports growing up. Wayne says he wasn’t too overbearing as a father but quickly stated that if they joined a team they had to finish the season. He got into coaching when his son Cody was young and it has evolved since then into what it is today.
The Iron Pigs have 2 seasons, the first season runs from the 2nd week of January until June, then they take a 6 week break, the 2nd season starts in the the middle of July until December and then another 6 week break. Kids try out for the teams every season, last try out there was 47 kids for the Iron Pigs elite 13U team of which only 12 make the team. The commitment is a large one, there is a weekend tournament 3 out of 4 weeks and practice twice a week. Wayne said that the cost to the parents is a concern and he try’s to keep it as low as possible but admits that it is getting out of control. This past season the Iron Pigs had 50 wins with 9 losses and are rated the 6th best 13U program in Florida by USSSA. (United States Specialty Sports Association). The Iron Pigs name was chosen by the kids over 2 other names a few years ago when Wayne and his partner combined 2 select programs, the Florida Curve and the Fort Myers Bandits, the Iron Pig name comes from one of the Philadelphia Phillies minor league affiliates the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs.
One issue that Wayne says is problematic is that elite or select teams are getting water downed the past 3 to 4 years, competition isn’t as good because parents want their child playing a certain position or think that their child possess a skill set that they really don’t have, these parents become overbearing and then might get insulted when you try to tell them as diplomatically as possible that their child’s best possible success is at a position that might not be as glamorous as shortstop or pitcher. There have been many times that parents have gotten offended and have decided to start their own select team, this way their child gets to play where they want them to play, Wayne says that you feel bad for the kids because you are only setting them up for failure. Wayne’s head coaches currently don’t have any kids on the teams and he hopes to keep it that way, he wants to develop the kids talents and utilize the kids at their natural positions and not because of favoritism.
It used to be hard find games for the kids in the past but with all the water downed competition he said it is very easy since there is a tournament going on every weekend. I asked what he does for vacation, he laughed and said it usually involves baseball, he has taken a team to the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown; recently he took a team to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina for a tournament in the Cal Ripken Experience. At the tournament the Iron Pigs dominated the skills competition as well as winning it all, I think I saw a sparkle in Wayne’s eye when he said this, I understand that it has to be sense of accomplishment when you see all your hard work pay off. He has a talented team, he called over one of his players that was hanging around the Snowbird Baseball Classic, Kyle is a first baseman and pitcher who said his fastball has topped out at 70 miles an hour, I was impressed for 13 that is fast. Wayne said that he has 2 other players that can throw in the mid to upper 70’s. I asked if he was concerned that the kids would get burned out with baseball or that they are overstressing their bodies at such a young age. Wayne says it is always a concern but you have to be careful how you condition the kids, he never uses weight training and keeps up with all the best techniques such as resistance training with bands.
Some of his training is specialized to explosive movements that simulates baseball moves, he proudly says that he has a Vertimax machine at the Sports Academy. Vertimax is an athletic training device to maximize speed, vertical jump and overall athletic performance, a lot of places including colleges don’t have one according to Wayne. He wants his kids to get as much repetition and he focuses on the fundamentals which he thinks a lot of coaches overlook. When he feels that the kids need a break or are lacking focus he will shut practices down for a week. During the 6 weeks between seasons he doesn’t want any of his players throwing a ball, just utilizing the resistance bands, he says their bodies need a break. He is lucky to have access to the Tampa Bay Rays minor league hitting instructor Wuarnner Ricones, who works with the kids from time to time to make sure that their form and technique is not over burdening their bodies.
Thanks for sharing your story with me Wayne, I will now be keeping an eye on the Iron Pigs from afar, you sound like you have a good grasp on the realities of select youth baseball and how to develop the kids in a skillful manner, I might just show up at one of your practices. Stay passionate about the game.
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Additional Information click on the links.
Top Prospects Sports Academy: http://www.topprospectsportsacademy.com/, IBC Baseball: https://www.ibcbaseball.com/, Charles Johnson: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Charles_Johnson_(catcher), USSSA: http://www.usssa.com/sports/home.asp?Sport=11, VertiMax: http://vertimax.mobi/.