Frank Thomas. Jose Canseco. The old guys show up to hit. Zach Walters. The young guy now with the Cleveland Indians and a long major league career ahead of him.
It has never mattered who is working in the batting cage on a particular day. Austin Kryszczuk finds a seat at On Deck Baseball Academy in Las Vegas and watches. Learns. Soaks in every swing of those who reached the game’s highest level.
“Other kids will be running around having fun and doing other stuff, and Austin just sits and stares at the pro guys hitting, making all sorts of mental notes,” said Andy Concepcion, owner of On Deck and a coach who has worked with Kryszczuk the past five years. “Here’s a kid who watches Major League Baseball Network every day. He is an absolute die-hard. He’s a gamer.”
Kids are different at 12 and 13 years of age. Some who advance to play in the Little League World Series are enamored with all that comes off the field. The free bats and sunglasses and cleats and gear. The sudden star status created by ESPN cameras constantly pointed at them. The fans seeking autographs. The girls wanting pictures.
Mostly, the girls.
But then you have a player who embraces most the joy of competing, who dreamed for years of running the bases at Lamade Stadium, whose talent matches his desire to be great, who respects his surroundings and the game and cherishes this opportunity, who wants to win in the most impassioned way.
That is Austin Kryszczuk.
Mountain Ridge has advanced to the U.S. championship game at 12:30 p.m. on Saturday on ABC because it owns the depth of pitching and hitting that none of the other 15 teams has come close to equaling.
It also might have the best player in Williamsport.
If there is such a thing as flawless hitting mechanics for a 13-year-old, Kryszczuk has them. He has the hands and the load and the stride and the balance and the finish. His is a special swing.
It is a skill set that has allowed him to hit .727 in three games, including a double, triple, two home runs and six RBIs.
He is also Mountain Ridge’s No. 1 pitcher, a hard-throwing left-hander who has struck out 12 in 5 2/3 innings.
“The entire (World Series) experience has been even better than I imagined,” Kryszczuk said. “Walking around the complex, meeting people from all over the world. It’s a lot different than what I watched on television growing up.
“I really don’t get into comparing myself to (other players) here. I’ve just always loved pressure situations. I focus on the game and my team and wish the best for all of us.”
He is the picture of a year-round travel ballplayer — and there always is good and bad that comes with that — a kid who tried other sports such as soccer and basketball but never felt about them the way he does baseball. He would sleep at On Deck Baseball Academy if they allowed it. He can’t get enough.
He has been shut down at different times because of arm soreness, and his father, a North Las Vegas policeman and assistant coach with Mountain Ridge, said he has informed Austin that once the team’s World Series run ends, he won’t be allowed to pick up a ball for at least two months and perhaps longer. The son forgets to be diligent sometimes with his stretching program, and the father quickly reminds him how important it is.
It’s a critical part of the process as a kid this talented matures into his teenage years that adults have his best interests (never mind health) at heart and can manage the stress on his mind and body from so much playing and the attitude that often develops when great success is realized.
“My wife (Charmaine) and I have already told him that no matter what comes with all this here, he is still 13 in our house when we get home, and there will still be rules and chores,” Bob Kryszczuk said. “From the start, we have reminded him to remain humble and appreciative — that no matter how good you are, there is always someone out there working harder, that there is always someone better.
“I’ve always told him, ‘Just let your play define who you are.’ It’s just a game.”
You can’t believe how much getting to Williamsport means to Austin Kryszczuk, one of four Mountain Ridge players who chose not to attend a travel tournament in Cooperstown, N.Y., home to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, a dream for any young player, so that they might better prepare for the All-Star season and a run at the Little League World Series.
Another story: After a major leaguer some years back signed a contract worth hundreds of millions of dollars, Concepcion gathered around a bunch of players at On Deck one day and asked each what he would do if fortunate enough to make that sum of money.
To, in essence, hit the baseball lottery.
“Most of them said they would buy things like cars and houses and Xboxes and PlayStations,” Concepcion said. “And then I asked Austin, who was like 8 at the time, what he would do with that much money. He just looked up at me and said, ‘I’d just buy more baseball stuff.’
“You could tell even then that he had something, that he was special. I sent him a text before the game Wednesday and told him things like to stay focused and don’t get rattled, and if he saw any mistakes, to drive the ball. To keep the ball down pitching and finish out front. All that sort of stuff.
“He texted back and said, ‘Thanks. A lot at stake right now. I’m just going to play my game.’ ”
He has, as well as anyone else in Williamsport.
His mechanics are flawless and his passion to be great unmatched.
He just loves to play, is all.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at email@example.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.