On a Mission

10
Aug

Liam Carroll

Blake Gailen is one of the millions of young ballplayers who dream of playing Major League Baseball.  Most of those dreams fade away.  Players move on, realising they're not good enough, or that actually don't want to work as hard as is required.  Sometimes they're just not in the right place at the right time. Blake however is one of the few with the real drive and determination to make his dream a reality.  His resume is a testament to that drive, an extensive roadmap of a man on a mission.

I met Blake while I worked at UNLV.  He came to us from his hometown community college in California, a left-handed pitcher and outfielder.  He was a hit with players and coaches alike, possessing a great knowledge of the game for his age and an equally great sense of humour.  He could do impressions of the entire coaching staff; I was an easy target I suppose, with my mashed up British/American accent. 

I love to have fun on the field.  Even at the highest level we see big leaguers stick gum bubbles on team-mates' hats, finding ways to lighten the grind of a 162 game season.  The balance for players to strike and coaches to enforce is to have fun without sacrificing work ethic and competitiveness.  Blake is a great example of the player who knows the difference between the goofy, hot-foot type of fun and the type of fun we can have becoming the best we can and competing hard.  I believe the best players get a real joy out of working their tails off and being in ultra-competitive situations.

After two years at UNLV Blake's amateur career came to an end   His numbers were solid but not great, not good enough for a Major League organisation to draft him.  Stats aren't the only thing MLB teams are after and Blake certainly possessed some of the intangibles that scouts look for: his work ethic and baseball IQ was off the charts.  But for the most part when a player without Nintendo-like stats is drafted it's because they have the physical tools and traits that enable the scouts to “project” impact at the Major League level; height, speed, raw power etc.  Listed at 5'7” and 155lbs coming out of university Blake didn't fit the mould and wasn't drafted.  It's at this point that the dream of many players begins to fade and a life of 9 to 5 begins.

Independent professional baseball is the playground of the players who cling to the dream.  There are leagues throughout America providing smaller towns and cities with the entertainment of professional sports.  Blake's roadmap is dotted with stops in these leagues.  Since 2007 he's jumped around from team to team: winter leagues in Arizona and Florida and summer teams in South Carolina then Kansas then California then Nebraska.  Each an opportunity to play at the highest level available and hopefully to impress a Major League organisation.

In the off-season Blake would return to UNLV to workout.  With each year it became obvious how hard he was working.  Free of the requirement to go to class and study he became a full-time athlete.  Blake told me that “understanding what it takes to get ready before games and in the off-season can make or break a career.  I am a big routine guy.  Not only does it prepare your body and create positive muscle memory, it also gets your mind right.”  Each year we'd see a faster, stronger version and a cage-rat to boot.  I'm fascinated by hitting, perhaps because I was never very good at it.  Spending time in the batting cage with Blake was fun; with so many stops around the Independent circuit he'd heard a lot of different things from a lot of different people.  The lesson he learned is applicable to coaches: take in all the information available and rather than take something as gospel because someone says so, experiment, mix and match, and find out what works for you.

Through this combination of strength gains, experience and endless hours in the cage, Blake can flat out hit.  In 2007, his senior year of university, he hit .298.  In 2010 with the Chico Outlaws of the Golden Baseball League he hit .387.  At any level of baseball, particularly in wood-bat leagues, that's a great average.  Asked about his improvement Blake believes that “the most important things I have learned about being a consistent hitter from a physical standpoint are being on time and loading with the hands and body.  Eyes are the most important and overlooked aspect of hitting.  You can have the best swing in the world but if you can't track, you can't hit.”

The high performance athlete is always on a mission.  To make the most out of an opportunity you must give meaning to what you do.  Without a mission it becomes easy to make choices that will not benefit you in the future.  It's perhaps the difference between a dream becoming a reality and it fading away.  Blake's roadmap to achieving his mission recently took a massive turn.  After 69 games with the Lincoln Saltdogs of the American Association, he was hitting a Nintendo-like .406.  The Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim took notice and picked up his contract.

He's got there the hard way but Blake is playing organised professional baseball for the Arkansas Travelers in the AA Texas League, and the Big Leagues are firmly within his sights.  It's always rewarding to see the achievements of the players that have come through your programme, especially those of the underdog.  His story is a great one that should inspire our British players.  The odds may be against you but if you make it your mission to the best you can be, you can stack them in your favour.  Congratulations Blake; good luck, not that you need it.

LC

** Update 27/08/13 **

Since I wrote this, Blake's journey has continued to take some turns.  Last season he played with the Lancaster Barnstormers (Atlantic League) and was named Baseball America's Independent Leagues player of the year.  After spending Spring Training with the Colorado Rockies he re-signed with Lancaster for the 2013 season.

Blake recently signed with the Toronto Blue Jays, who assigned him to their Triple-A affiliate Buffalo Bisons.

Blake is hitting .417 through four games with the Bisons and hit a home run in his debut.

Coincidentally, Bison catcher Mike Nickeas played for Great Britain in the 2007 European Championship.

tagged under: baseball, mlb, blog, hitting, minor league baseball

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About Liam Carroll

Liam Carroll

Liam was a Regional Coach and then Development Coordinator for BaseballSoftballUK until May 2014. He returned to his hometown of London to work for BSUK in 2010 after stops in Somerset, Bristol, Cornwall, California and Nevada. Growing up playing in Britain, Liam made the move to America to study and play university baseball. After figuring out that his future would be brighter as a coach rather than player, he moved to the University of Nevada Las Vegas to finish his degree and coach college baseball. Since then he’s coached youth and adult teams on both sides of the atlantic and with the Great Britain Baseball National Teams.

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