It was late Friday morning at the Bat Cave or the Man Cage or whatever Mike Bryant calls the addition to his home in a quiet part of Las Vegas. Quiet, that is, with the exception of the sound a batting practice fastball makes when it intersects with the sweet spot of the bat.
Some lanky, left-handed-swinging kid was responsible for the intersection of baseball and bat when I was there. What a beautiful noise. The kid looked to be about 17 or 18 from where I was standing, which was over Mike Bryant’s shoulder as he pitched.
The kid had a sweet swing.
Bryant said he was 12.
So you have this kid; and you have Bryant’s son, Kris, the current rookie of the month in the majors; and you have Bryce Harper, the current player of the month in the majors; and you have Joey Gallo, who went 3-for-4 in a major league debut last week that was so spectacular it blew sparks from light towers with an orchestral crescendo, or so it seemed.
And you had the Mountain Ridge Little League kids last summer, who nearly won it all at the Little League World Series — without using ineligible players.
And so it would seem that local youth baseball, having produced these special players, and this special team, is on the rise.
And maybe it still is.
But for how much longer?
This is what Mike Bryant asked after he sent the lanky youngster with the sweet swing on his way.
This was three days before the major league draft. It was expected to be the first draft since 2009 during which a Las Vegas kid was not selected in the first round. Phil Bickford, a pitcher at the College of Southern Nevada, was expected to be taken late in the first round, but he’s a surfer kid from Southern California.
This is only one guy’s opinion, but Mike Bryant sees a downward trend. He says all these kids’ club teams that have cropped up are diluting local talent and hindering its development.
It was strange to hear Bryant say that, because it was only a few years ago when Bryant and Tony Gallo, Joey’s dad, started their own club team of 11- and 12-year-olds called the Las Vegas BallBusters.
“I’m not going to argue with the tradition — Greg Maddux, Mike Morgan, Rodger Fairless, Tim Chambers and going all the way back,” said Bryant, who was a pretty good ballplayer himself, making it to Double-A with the Red Sox. “When I got here in ’88, baseball was just amazing — Tyler Houston and those guys.
“It’s a great tradition, but my issues — and they arise truly out of passion for the game — is now there’s a preponderance of club ball teams, which has decimated the best developmental system there ever was, which was Little League.”
They’re gonna love Mike Bryant in Williamsport, Pa.
He said before these club teams started cherry-picking, everybody played Little League ball, and it sped up the development of young hitters and pitchers having them all under the same umbrella.
But what about the Mountain Ridge kids?
Well, that was a special group, Bryant said. And yet …
“They had two kids throwing in the 70s (mph). Our Peccole team had five guys throwing in the mid-70s, and we couldn’t get out of the San Bernardino regional because there was this guy Josh Vitters who pitched for Southern California who beat us 1-0.”
The Peccole kids of summers ago were in above their heads against Vitters, who went on to become the third overall pick in the 2007 draft. But Mike Bryant believes they became better ballplayers because of it.
“The formula for development is always play above your ability level. They’re not playing above their ability level,” he said of today’s young players on the club circuit. “There’s probably 18 to 25 club teams at each level, where before there might have been four.”
So now these Las Vegas traveling teams aren’t traveling as much, because it’s cheaper not to travel, and because they don’t have to.
“They’ll face a guy throwing 75 for four at-bats during a year, where we used to face a guy throwing 75 for 16 at-bats every weekend,” Bryant said.
After Kris Bryant went on to play in college, his father drifted away from the local youth baseball scene. When he drifted back, he was stunned. “When me and Tony formed the BallBusters, we had tryouts for 55 kids, and 45 of them couldn’t catch or throw,” he said.
Instead of the grown-ups forming adversarial relationships and rivalries and doing their own baseball things, wouldn’t it be better if they coexisted for the sake of the kids?
Mike Bryant thinks so.
“I would like to see complete support of Little League, and the coaches of the club teams become involved, and go back to basics there,” he said. “I know Mountain Ridge brought a title back, but there’s no excitement in Little League anymore, and it’s sad.”
Bryant went on a little more with that passion of which he spoke before his old-school cellphone vibrated. It was Kris buzzing from D.C. Kris had been scuffling a little; he was calling his old man for some hitting advice against the Nationals.
That night, Kris knocked one off the top of the wall. On Sunday, he went 3-for-4 with a single, double and triple.
Mike Bryant charges a fee for hitting lessons but said he would be happy to put on hitting clinics for free, if he were asked by the local leagues.
“I want to do that, but my greatest fear is that I would have a party and nobody came,” he said.
Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski.