By Sergio Santistevan
The oldest travel baseball program in the United States hails from West Covina, CA, and their expectations are higher than ever.
“Winning matters. but we teach winning ways,” said Cameron Saylor, who started as a board member and became manager of the Dukes 14 years ago. “We set our sights out there every year at every level to win. Again, some people who say it doesn’t matter are wrong … we expect every year at every level to finish strong or we expect to finish in the world series or a national championship. We go into every tournament with the expectation of winning.”
Led by Saylor (who is also a restaurant owner), the West Covina Dukes has not only been one of the premier youth baseball programs in California for 30 years, but regarded as such in the nation because of their rich legacy and winning ways.
In 1991, Dukes Baseball landed a federal land grant and became the only travel baseball program to own a facility. Year after year, Maverick Baseball Park has kept growing, from adding a turf field, locker rooms to even an LED lighting system.
“We’ve developed a pretty strong facility that is a destination point in the area,” said Saylor.
Dukes Baseball originally started out only with 13 and 14-year-old teams, but that has now evolved into 9- to 18-year-old age groups with 10 total teams currently in the program. In what has been described as two generations of Dukes Baseball, it all started with the original founder of the program – Duke Defrates. Much of today’s Duke Baseball coaching philosophy still comes from Defrates.
“The overall coaching philosophy of the program, a lot of it was adopted from Duke Defrates,” said Saylor. “There’s a lot of information in those handouts that we had … that’s where our core principles came from.”
Those coaching tactics and core principles have evaluated Dukes Baseball to tremendous success over the years with championships and scholarships. In the past 13 years alone, Dukes Baseball has had 149 players sign to play college ball at NCAA DI and D2 programs. From 2012 to 2016, 14 former Dukes were drafted in the MLB in only that four-year span.
One of the most successful seasons in Dukes’ history came in 2014, as 14u Dukes National won the USA West National Championship with a 7-1 record.
“We’re averaging about 11 guys per year that are going on to play DI and D2 baseball,” said Saylor. “We’ve accounted for about $20 million to $21 million in college scholarships. Currently, we have 24 guys playing pro ball.”
Saylor and the Dukes take great pride in those numbers but love even more that their fees system is set up to be affordable for parents. Since the Dukes are a not-for-profit organization, they aren’t out to break parents back with payments. Instead what Dukes Baseball aims to do is provide a top-notch facility and coaching for their players.
Former Dukes players who are playing professionally come back in the offseason and help coach some of the teams or even individual positions. Once Spring Training approaches, the kids love seeing their coaches compete on the diamond in front of a packed audience.
“They’re really gracious to these guys,” Saylor said. “They go out there and see their coaches who are on the field, now on a big-league field … it’s a good time.”
Saylor first got involved with youth baseball when he was coaching his daughter, who is now 35 years old. He then went on to coach his son, C.J., through the years, where he would become one of the top players in the state of California and eventually drafted by the Los Angeles Dodgers out of high school as a catcher and again by the St. Louis Cardinals as a pitcher.
When Saylor’s wife was pregnant with both his kids, he and his friends played in a men’s league on Maverick Field, so he likes to think his kids literally grew up in the system.
Today, Dukes Baseball has higher expectations than ever before both on and off the field as charity work has become a focal point of their program. One of their favorite charity events is the annual RJ’s Game, hosted at Maverick Field where a handful of the best high school baseball teams compete against each other. The Dukes charge admission, sell food and livestream the games and then use all the proceeds to donate back to the schools.
On top of the RJ’s Game, Dukes Baseball has a scholarship program with a local school and is going a step further this year and adding a college scholarship under the RJ name.
“We try to do stuff a little bit differently,” Saylor said regarding charity and scholarship efforts.
Dukes Baseball places a big emphasis on education in their program. Saylor says the Dukes lay out a path for every player on how to achieve their goals and what they want to accomplish. In what is called “The Yellow Brick Road” education is stressed as one of the most important aspects for every player.
“We put you on a track to have your SATs, transcripts, and have your grades ready,” said Saylor. “We have tremendous success on the academics side.”
Unlike a lot of other teams, the Dukes want high-parent involvement on their teams. Saylor says that if parents are involved and know what’s going on in the program, it’s easier for players to get on board.
Through coaching Dukes Baseball, Saylor has found something that he loves to do. He appreciates seeing the success of players more than anything whether that means excelling in life or succeeding on the diamond. However, coaching has had more of the impact of him than he believes he’s had on the players.
“I don’t know if I get more out of coaching or if (the players) get more out of it,” said Saylor. “(Coaching) made me a better guy, actually it probably made me a better father. At the end of the day, I’ve had the opportunity to practice a lot, I’ve had the opportunity to meet lots of families and kids. I’ve learned a lot of rights and wrongs and tried to practice all the rights … it’s also made me a better husband.”
by Sergio Santistevan
In South Orange County, CA, one baseball program will tell anybody who walks through their door about its philosophy.
Led by a group of high-level coaches, the Saddleback Cowboys are built off discipline, respect, and development – everything else comes second.
“We’re really keen on fundamentals and development, not necessarily about the wins,” said Saddleback Cowboys coach Wade Jackson. “Teaching them the right aspects of the game … fundamentals, development, respecting the game and having professionalism on the field.”
Growing up in the local area, Jackson has decades of playing and coaching experience. At El Toro High School, Jackson was a two-time All-South Coast League selection. Following his high school career, Jackson went on to play at Saddleback College, a JUCO in Mission Viejo, CA.
Jackson racked up several accolades during his junior college run as he was a two-time All-Orange Empire League selection, 1994 Junior College Player of the Year in the Southern Division, and he broke marks in batting, hits, RBI and runs. Today, Jackson is enshrined in the Saddleback College Baseball Hall of Fame.
After his JUCO run, Jackson played at the University of Nevada - Reno and was selected by the Anaheim Angels in the 1996 MLB Draft.
Once he was done playing in the minors, Jackson’s career switched to coaching youth baseball. A year after retirement, Jackson’s neighbor approached him and asked him to coach his son's travel team, which was one of the only baseball teams in South Orange County at that time.
Through the past 19 years in youth baseball, Jackson has experienced coaching his son to being a co-owner of the Saddleback Cowboys with Chris Malec and Richard Mercado.
Jackson took a few years off from coaching when his son, Jake, was younger but returned when he turned age 8 so he could coach the team. When Jake was ready to go to college, he followed his father’s legacy and chose Nevada where he was named a Collegiate Baseball Freshman All-American in 2018.
Jackson’s co-owners of the Saddleback Cowboys, Malec and Mercado, have plenty of experience on the diamond, too.
Malec was a freshman All-American and three-time All-Big West selection at the University of California - Santa Barbara. He then went on to get drafted by the New York Yankees in 2005, where he was a 2008 Class AA All-Star and three-time league champion who reached Triple-A.
Mercado attended the University of Arizona where he was a captain for the 2004 College World Series team. He was selected in the 12th round of the MLB Draft by the Arizona Diamondbacks and achieved a nine-year professional career, also reaching Triple-A.
Jackson, Malec and Mercado have focused their post-playing careers on coaching youth baseball, but all three men have families – it can be hard to juggle baseball and their own lives.
“It’s balance, long hours,” Jackson laughed. “We get on the field at usually one and two in the afternoon and we’re at that until nine. Weekends are on the baseball field. It’s tough.”
Despite the long hours, all three coaches find a way to balance their lives and still implement discipline, respect and development in their players.
“We teach them that it’s a hard game, a family game, something you got to work every day at. It’s not something you just show up and throw your cleats on and start throwing the baseball,” Jackson said. “You have to respect it, treat it the way it’s supposed to be treated, and give it your all. This game can be very fortunate for you, take you very far, and do lots of things for you.”
The Saddleback Cowboys coaching staff has set up goals throughout the year for each age group but winning isn’t at top of that list. Development always comes first.
“As they get older that stuff happens because of what they do as they grow … we’re really keen on developing the boys, especially at a younger age,” he added.
Developing the team comes with the respect and discipline that Jackson says is taught even in the youngest teams. A Saddleback Cowboys' rule is that if a player doesn’t show up with his uniform belt, then he doesn’t get to play.
Jackson understands there is more to life than baseball, which is why he wants to teach his players life lessons on top of baseball techniques. His favorite stories to hear from players are the ones where they sign to a college with their help, because it shows that they accomplished their goals of creating good ballplayers and disciplined men.
“It’s just not just baseball, it’s teaching them aspects of life and becoming a young man,” Jackson said. “Teaching them beyond baseball is another thing … not everyone is going to go make that $10 million per year and there are other things in life.”
After a month and a half off from baseball, the Saddleback Cowboys returned to the field in late January. Jackson currently has his team hitting and doing some strength and conditioning as they start to prepare for their spring schedule.
“It comes back to development. Most of our teams get in three workouts a week,” Jackson said. “It’s preparing for them for the fundamentals and situational (baseball) … putting our best foot forward and trying to teach them.”
Despite being away from his family, grandchildren and friends often due to baseball events, Jackson can’t imagine himself doing anything else in life. He calls himself fortunate that he’s been allowed to do something that he loves for his entire life.
“How many people out in the world can say they do exactly what they love every day?” he said. “I get to be on the baseball field 50 percent of the day and almost every day. It’s something that I developed a respect for all my life, and I get to teach it to younger kids now.”
FORT COLLINS, Colo. – Baseball superstar Domingo Ayala has always been a gracious champion, ready to share critical insight on how to play the game even if the mortals in the audience would be lucky to even approach his skill set.
But rather than retire early, sit back and wait for his Hall of Fame wing to be built, the YouTube and social media All-Star is back in action, as Triple Crown Sports has announced details for the six stops of the 2020 TC Baseball Domingo Ayala Tour.
This will be the fifth year TC baseball and Domingo have joined forces. He has performed in a variety of settings, from indoor sports facilities, sports complexes, youth baseball fundraisers, corporate events and even in MLB locker rooms. Ayala’s unconventional journey to excellence provides a great deal of comedic material that scores of fans, even those outside the diamond sports, have embraced over the years.
His fearsome batting and pitching statistics, which might be hard to verify, are right in step with these rock-solid and impressive numbers:
Facebook: 321,000 followers
Instagram: 281,000 followers
YouTube: 191,000 subscribers, 38 million total video views
Twitter: 84,000 followers
Here’s the schedule for the 2020 Domingo Ayala TC Tour:
March 13-14 – Arizona Spring Championships, Session 2
March 20-21 – Arizona Spring Championships, Session 3
June 11-12 – Omaha SlumpBuster, Session 1
June 18-19 – Omaha SlumpBuster, Session 3
July 20 – TCS World Series, Park City, UT
July 28 – TCA World Series, Steamboat Springs, CO
“Triple Crown Baseball knows how to muscle up and give the best experience to the youth baseball market, much like how Domingo Ayala muscles up to blast a home run on pretty much every at-bat,” said Sean Hardy, VP of Sports at TCS. “We are thrilled to have him back for 2020, interacting with our fans, signing autographs and taking pictures that make TCS events even more memorable.”
Look for details on upcoming appearances at www.domingobeisbol.com
About Domingo Ayala
At the age of 2, Domingo Ayala started playing baseball. It wasn't long after that when he became one of the best players in his hometown of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. In his pursuit to make it to the MLB, Ayala packed his bags and moved to the United States.
Now, the self-proclaimed best baseball player in the world still claims to be 17 years old. Though many believe him to be slightly older, no one has seen a birth certificate to disprove his claim. As he travels the world teaching baseball, his ultimate goal is still to make it to the big leagues.
About Triple Crown Sports
Based in Fort Collins, CO., Triple Crown Sports has been producing college and youth events for more than 35 years, with more than 90 events scheduled for 2020 in the arenas of youth baseball, fastpitch, basketball, lacrosse and volleyball. The TCS footprint includes both the preseason and postseason WNIT basketball events and the men’s and women’s Cancun Challenge tournaments in November. Triple Crown is also powering “WNIT” concept events in D-I softball (NISC) and volleyball (NIVC), with those two events debuting in 2017. TCS youth fastpitch tournaments (including the 900-team Sparkler/Fireworks event) draw the nation’s finest club programs, and hundreds of college coaches attend TCS events for recruiting purposes.
by Sergio Santistevan
Back in 2011, three friends had a vision of helping take youth baseball players to the next level. Now in 2020, Golden Spikes Baseball is one of the premier baseball organizations for youth development in the Sacramento, CA region.
Those three friends, Brett Hemphill, Alex Creel and Mikela Olsen, now lead the Golden Spikes coaching staff that consists fully of former professional and collegiate baseball players.
“I think it’s a big factor that draws a lot of really good ballplayers to our organization,” said Hemphill. “The training that we do is pretty rigorous and it’s great. I think the higher-level player is definitely seeking that out.”
Hemphill’s baseball career goes back to the early ’90s when he played at California State University, Fullerton, where he twice played in the College World Series. In 1994, Hemphill was voted “Best Defensive Player” of his team, Honorable Mention All-Big West and All-Tournament for the Midwest I Regional.
After a successful collegiate career, Hemphill went on to play seven years of professional baseball as a catcher with the Anaheim Angels organization. In the minor leagues, he experienced a pair of All-Star Game appearances and earned some hardware with 1995 and 1996 championships.
In 1999, Hemphill recorded a pair of hits in his first two major league at-bats – he’s one of a handful of players to ever record that stat. After an injury ended his career, he finished his professional career with a .270 batting average.
After leaving professional baseball, Hemphill moved into youth baseball as a member of the Hard 90 staff. As coaches with Hard 90, Hemphill, Creel and Olsen eventually decided to branch off and become co-founders of the California Golden Spikes.
Like Hemphill, Creel and Olsen have years of baseball experience. In 1999, Creel was ranked by Baseball America as the 49th best high school prospect in the nation. Creel went on to play at Arizona State and Cal Poly before injuries cut his career short.
Creel has become one of the best pitching experts in Northern California by emphasizing arm health, pitching mechanics and enhanced velocity. With his teachings, several pitchers have broken the 90MPH mark and been drafted in the MLB.
In 2003, Olsen was drafted by the Florida Marlins after a successful collegiate career at Sacramento State where he was team MVP and 2003 Independent Conference Hitter of the Year; he was awarded a spot on the Sacramento State’s All-Decade Team.
Olsen specializes his coaching practices on hitting, fielding and the mental aspect of the game.
The Golden Spikes coaching staff’s goal is to be a third-party set of eyes, which is why they don’t favor having fathers coaching sons on their teams. Hemphill believes this is what separates the Golden Spikes program from others, in how he values a player’s talent over political reasons.
“We’re not knocking the close dad-ball, but what we’re trying to do is have people say, ‘Hey I’m getting a good value for the dollar I’m spending because I’m getting a professional opinion from guys who have played the game at a high-level before who are looking at my kid as just a player,’” said Hemphill.
Some of the main objectives of the Golden Spikes program are to hold players accountable and implement high effort into their players' DNA.
“We try to have these kids write out their goals and try to keep them accountable to adhere to it,” said Hemphill. “We ask them ‘Well, how are you going to get there? You got to do your work, which requires you to try.’ You got to give us effort.”
This season, Hemphill and company have some goals that they want to accomplish on the diamond, as well. In March, the Golden Spikes will head down to Arizona to take part in Triple Crown Sports’ Arizona Spring Championships. The coaching staff is hoping for a good showing in Arizona to start their year off right.
The next tournament the Golden Spikes have circled is Cooperstown Dreams Park. In 2017, Hemphill’s squad made an unbelievable run in the tournament, and he hopes to relive that magic this time around.
“The last time I was there, the team I took finished second out of 104 teams, so I’d like these guys to experience what we went through, because it was an unreal run,” Hemphill said.
Whatever the results happen to be this season, Hemphill and the Golden Spikes coaching staff will continue their main goal of developing young players through it all.
“Coaching has allowed me to do something I’m passionate about,” he said. “It’s allowed me to stay involved in baseball and try to teach young kids the way I was taught.”