Recruiting 101: Baseball and Academics

Recruiting 101 is designed for players and parents to see current and practical conversation from the most informed voices in the world of college recruiting. How to get seen, how to be taken seriously and how to prepare for the next level are the primary themes we will explore.

There’s a percentage of children who pick up a (toy) baseball bat around the time they first pick up a pencil, but that doesn’t mean kids evolve the same way, academically and athletically.

Each learning curve weaves in and out of the lead position, with some figuring out the fundamentals of on-field success earlier than others, and vice versa. But when it’s time to secure a spot at some level of college baseball, even the most promising players can’t lie their way past the academic requirements of their school of choice.

Tools, tutors and techniques exist to help the student-athlete, but just like in sports, it pays to have an aggressive approach.

“I talk about the kids who didn’t take the advice about academics early and what happened, just as I can talk about the kids who did take the advice and the doors that were opened,” said Nelson Gord, founder of and coach at the Illinois Indians club program that has 15 teams, nine of which play at the high-school level. “You’ve got good athletes who just expected it to happen for them. Academics play a huge role, especially in the D3 and NAIA opportunities, because you can get that merit money, which can be a lot more than you’ll see in a D-I scholarship.”

Gord’s teams typically take a winter trip to settings such as Arizona, Las Vegas or Florida, where two or three study sessions about an hour in duration in the hotel lobby are just as mandatory as practice. Parents on the lookout for a baseball academy are advised to investigate the tone of academic support that will be available.

The nuances of each college division, from JUCO through the top of the heap that finishes each year in Omaha at the CWS, also requires study and research to fully grasp. But step one for any player is getting a handle on their strengths and weaknesses as a student.

“It kicked in for me my sophomore year in high school,” said Michael Rothmund, an 18-year-old freshman first baseman at D-II University of Illinois-Springfield. “My first semester, I was just going through the motions. My baseball coach was my history teacher, and he asked me if I was going to show him anything in school where I deserved to get pulled up to varsity. It really hit me. After two or three games I got pulled up, and I saw how important it was to get my stuff done. Playing baseball is a privilege.”

The wake-up call Rothmund got in high school provides a ripple effect now, when the wake-up call for 6 a.m. conditioning drills rattles the dark. A student-athlete’s schedule is tight, and disciplined use of free time is no less important than the ability to see the spin on a curveball.

“I felt that if I got my academics in line, I wouldn’t have to worry about it and I could focus on baseball. Every morning from 6 to 7:15, we have weights and conditioning – you’ve got to get through that, make sure you get to class, sit up front and ask questions,” Rothmund said. “In college, without the grades, you can’t play. Baseball is supposed to be fun, and I enjoy the practice and hanging out with the guys. But being a student is so much more important in the end.”

That’s also the message from the coaching ranks in college. At Central Michigan University, head coach Steve Jaksa has a 12-year coaching history and equal command of his in-game strategies as well as the academic priorities of the program. It’s best understood as a different world – the NCAA has standards involving the number of class hours, when a major and minor have to be declared, progress toward the degree, all during a time when full-bore commitment to the sport is expected.

“Players will have mandatory meetings with our academic advisor. If they miss one and didn’t communicate in advance, well, they don’t practice until it’s taken care of,” said Jaksa, who had about a dozen players reach the 3.5 GPA mark and earn academic honors last year. “We’ve gotten calls about it and taken kids right away from practice. This gets to be a pretty clear message, because you don’t want to miss practice. You’re hurting the team as well, and no one wants to do that.”

While the repercussions of an academic misstep have a grim flavor, Jaksa emphasizes the reservoir of student aid players can tap into when the pressure starts to escalate.

“Our academic advisor works very closely with the freshmen, the JUCO transfers, anyone new to campus, and helps structure the schedule all the way through,” he said. “We look at your ACT scores, your high school GPA, test scores, all before you get put in a class. It’s about getting them a solid foundation. And there are study halls, a writing center for papers, tutors. We say take advantage of tutors even when you know you’re not going to fail, but you want to understand the core material better before you take a test.

“Our academic advisor has access to the ‘blackboard’ so she can see grades, get a feel for the class syllabus and what is due when. And we get weekly reports, which helps on our end. Our players know they are going to be student-athletes.”

Hard as it is to believe, players who have been told about available support and have heard the warnings about demands at the college level still balk at fully addressing schoolwork.

“There are so many resources, but I saw a lot of people in club and high school that didn’t ask for help. Counselors, teachers, brothers and sisters – if you end up ineligible, then what’s the point?” Rothmund said. “Luckily, I was brought up very well, to not be afraid to ask. If something made me feel awkward about it, well, I know who I am. You can’t get discouraged.”

“We’ve done ACT prep classes, and there wasn’t a lot of buy-in. One thing is, it might be stigmatized,” Gord added. “The kids who are really intelligent may not think they need it, and the kids that need help might feel embarrassed if they are seen getting it. It’s just unfortunate, because they don’t realize the doors that could open up.”