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.”