By STEVE KRAH
There was a time when college baseball recruiters and pro scouts did not hold the Hoosier State in high regard.
“Indiana has always been talented as a state,” says Blake Hibler. “But from an exposure standout, it was always overlooked.
“Indiana was some place you drove through. People are now stopping. They realize what kind of talent there is.”
Hibler, founder of Prep Baseball Report Indiana who is now kept busy as program director/event manager for Bullpen Tournaments at Grand Park in Westfield, Ind., has watched the state raise its profile with the help of travel baseball and strong college programs.
“(Big leaguers like) Adam Lind, Scott Rolen and Lance Lynn kind of paved the way for Indiana baseball to become big,” says Hibler. “The explosion came when Purdue was a No. 1 regional seed in the NCAA tournament (in 2012) and (Indiana University) went to Omaha (for the College World Series in 2013).”
At the lower levels, the University of Southern Indiana went NCAA Division II World Series in 2007 and won it all in 2010 and 2014. The University of Indianapolis went to the D-II World Series in 2000 and 2012. Manchester appeared in the D-III World Series in 2004 and 2013.
“This allowed Indiana to become more exposed,” says Hibler. “When we started PBR, college coaches contacted us asking ‘where is that sleeper?’ We don’t have sleepers anymore.
“Colleges are very aware of every player in our state.”
In his role at Grand Park, Hibler oversees 16 straight weekends of travel baseball events in the spring and summer and another six in the fall.
There’s something baseball-related going on — games, tournaments, showcases — at the facility with 26 diamonds from the end of January through October.
There are 12 full-size fields — four with full synthetic turf fields and eight with synthetic infields and grass outfields. Hibler considers eight of those high school or college fields.
Bullpen Tournaments, which counts 90 percent of its business as baseball with some softball, leases the facility from Grand Park. The land is owned by the City of Westfield.
As the sole operator, Bullpen’s 100 employees take care of everything from restrooms to common area mowing to field maintenance to practice scheduling and more.
From the beginning of June to the end of July, there are 230 to 280 teams at Grand Park every weekend. Of those, 115 are high school-age squads.
There are often more than one tournament going on — maybe U9 through U12 games on one side of the complex and high schoolers on the other.
In June and July, Bullpen hosts American Baseball Championships for Youth Baseball, U13, U14, U15, U16, U17 and U18.
An elite event is the PBR Future Games. The eighth annual tournament is slated for Aug. 1-4 with 24 teams and players from more than 40 states.
In 2017, all five collegiate power conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) were represented with more than 80 percent of schools in those leagues in attendance.
“This year won’t be any different,” says Hibler of the 16U event. “It’s the best uncommitted sophomores in the country.
“It’s kind of a culmination of their season and kickoff to their junior year. The recruiting calendar falls in perfect. Sept. 1 is when college coaches can begin calling and have direct conversations with these recruits.”
The first Future Games was held in 2011 with four teams.
Nolan Watson was MVP in 2015, the year he was selected in the first round of the Major League Baseball First-Year Player Draft by the Kansas City Royals out of Lawrence North High School.
Technology helps keep track of all Bullpen tournaments.
There is a phone app for that. It can be uploaded from the Google Play Store.
Hibler is the “tech guy” for both Bullpen Tournaments and PBR-Indiana and does a podcast with PBR owner/director Phil Wade. Many of those focus on events at Grand Park or the top high school players and teams in the state.
With all its facilities, there is a large economic impact that comes with the complex.
“The most common question we get is: How do you pay for Grand Park?,” says Hibler. “Ultimately, the mayor (Andy Cook) took a risk. He decided to make youth sports his industry.”
The City of Westfield owns the land and owns and operates the Grand Park Events Center, which will house the Indianapolis Colts Training Camp this year, and the soccer facility.
Hotels and restaurants are on the way. There are also private facilities springing up like Pro X Athlete Development and Pacers Athletic Center.
A graduate of Lawrence Central High School who played for the Indiana Mustangs and Danville Area Community College, Hibler has worked for RoundTripper Sports Academy in Westfield and Pastime Tournaments as well as an associate MLB scout.
Hibler joined the PBR family in November 2010. At the time, he was in his second stint as the pitching coach for Lawrence Central, where he saw two pitchers get drafted in 2011 — Christian Montgomery (11th round, Mets) and Jared Ruxer (29th round, Indians). He was originally the pitching coach from 2004-2005 before returning for 2007-2011.
He has seen how competitive recruiting is, but it is usually not cut throat.
“Baseball is little more loyal with the verbal commitment than other sports,” says Hibler. “College coaches are buddies. They don’t necessarily go after other kids as aggressively as basketball and football.
“I would be naive to say it doesn’t happen (in baseball).”
A premium is placed on players who play in the middle of the diamond.
“Pitching is the easiest thing to project,” says Hibler. “If you’re 92 (mph) now, you’re going be 92 or better we you reach college. There’s a lot more to dream on with your catchers, shortstops and centerfielders.
“Typically, you’re looking for in that younger age group is athleticism and physicality. You get the combination of athleticism and physicality, those are the kids who typically commit early.”
Hibler notes that outside of the state’s top 10 or so players, most commit in their junior or even senior years.
How is success gauged in the travel baseball world?
“For 14-and-under, success is still defined by wins and losses,” says Hibler. “15-and-up is defined by scholarships and exposure.
“Lost in all of this is competitiveness. In the Future Games, Indiana always plays Illinois on Friday night. That’s still the most-attended game because there’s a rivalry there.”
Hibler says players appreciate playing against equal competition. With so many travel teams out there, mismatches happen.
“The better players relax or shut down during games,” says Hibler. “They don’t play hard during the summer sometimes unless they are in front of college coaches or playing a really good team.”
The ABC tournaments were designed with two tiers — the first to determine which division teams belong in and the second to crown Gold, Silver and Bronze division champions.
“That way it creates competitive baseball,” says Hibler.
Hibler notes that when the Indiana Bulls were started in the early 1990s to give the state’s best the chance to play top competition and receive exposure, they were the only organization out there. There are now many options and the talent is more evenly divided.
There are those who think that team chemistry is easier to build with a high school program than travel baseball, where players are coming from many different directions.
“Travel baseball is figuring that out and trying to combat it,” says Hibler. “They’re starting to put the development piece back into it a little bit.”
There is a misconception on the part of some players (and their parents) about travel ball and high school ball. They are putting more emphasis on travel.
“Some of these kids believe that travel baseball is more important to their future than high school is,” says Hibler. “A lot of college coaches still call the high school coach first after that initial talk with the travel coach.
“High school simulates a little bit of what college life could be — academics, girls, scouting reports, being a student and an athlete.
“A high school coach has to deal with the player and his girl friend got in a fight during seventh period and this kid has to be on the field in 15 minutes to play a game. The summer ball coach doesn’t have to deal with that as much.”
Then there are the trouble makers and malcontents.
“If you’re a bad kid and live in a community, everyone in that community knows you’re a bad kid,” says Hibler. “You can hide that in travel ball and travel sports in general.”
Hibler has seen players go out of there way to make high school coaches mad for no reason.
“They think it works like travel baseball,” says Hibler. “They can do whatever they want and pack up and leave. Some administrations allow that. But there’s a lot of good programs that don’t.”
Outside of loyalty, there is nothing binding that keeps a player with a travel organization. For various reasons, many players have jumped from team to team. Some players have skipped high school and played only travel baseball.
“Kids get handled with such care during the summer because the penalty is you lose them,” says Hibler. “Coaches don’t know if you handle them like they’re supposed to be handled — with discipline and holding them accountable.
“Some (coaches) take that approach. For others, it’s the Wild, Wild West. Do what you want.”
Hibler says players need both travel and high school and they need to respect the differences.
Travel players show up, play and leave. They pitch from pristine mounds. Maintenance at million-dollar fields is handled by someone else.
High schoolers must take on more responsibility. At many schools, they have to pick up trash in the dugout, sweep and rake to make the fields ready for play.
A few years ago, the coach of a team of 8-year-olds asked to change fields because one was too bumpy.
Hibler’s response: “You don’t live in the real world. We practiced in parking lots.”
Bullpen Tournaments runs baseball and softball events out of Grand Park in Westfield, Ind.