Alabama school sweet with prospects
Those are scouts you hear rustling in Russell County
SEALE, Ala. -- The baseball field at the Russell County High School sports complex was silent last week. There were no games, no crowds, nothing obvious to indicate what has been taking place at this rural Alabama school.
The Warriors, having been eliminated from the state playoffs earlier in the month, are through for the year. But that hardly means their work is over. This tiny town just west of the Georgia border has become a baseball factory and just because the season has ended, it doesn't mean production has stopped.
With the First-Year Player Draft just a few weeks away, coach Tony Rasmus has simply moved his players to a different part of the assembly line. The bullpen and batting cages remain full of life as several Warriors continue their work, pushing themselves to help Russell County enhance its newfound reputation as a baseball hotbed.
While Russell County High may not be well-known outside the state, it has gained a reputation where it counts most -- with Major League Baseball. The Cardinals selected Colby Rasmus, the coach's eldest son, with the 28th pick in last year's draft. Rasmus' younger brother, Corey, and teammate Kasey Kiker, both pitchers, are expected to go high in this year's draft as well, possibly in the first round. Shortstop Adam Coe is also expected to be taken early.
And, looking down the road, the Warriors have a pair of players -- pitchers Danny Danielson and Justin Dutton -- who are already being touted as possible first- or second-round picks in 2007 by some Major League scouting directors. Sophomores Cyle and Case Rasmus are behind them, and their dad believes they won't have much trouble following in the footsteps of their older brothers.
The scouting community has certainly noticed what's taking place in the small town of Seale. So much so that they expect this school of a little more than 1,000 students to be "draft central" for the foreseeable future.
"Absolutely," said one Major League scouting director. "And it's not a coincidence or a fluky thing when you see the program and the discipline and the structure they have. It's the highest compliment you can give a high school program. It's great to have talent, but you need to have players who know how to play and there are few schools like that around the country.
"It starts with the youth baseball programs. Someone is developing these kids and getting them to learn the fundamentals. And they aren't losing kids as they progress. The programs are feeding one another and they have some good coaches."
So how does a school that draws from a county whose population is slightly less than 50,000 produce so much talent? Tony Rasmus says it's simple. Hard work and the proper mindset is all it took to make Russell County one of the country's premier high school programs.
Rasmus has been the coach at Russell for six seasons, and over the last four seasons he has posted a 127-29 record, including going 38-1 in 2005 to earn the top-ranking in the country. He also coached a team that included his two oldest sons to the finals of the Little League World Series in 1999.
"This school system had never had any kind of success, save one year for football, at anything," Rasmus said. "They developed a mentality of playing for the heck of it and I came here and I'm not used to approaching things that way. And my first two years here were hard trying to change a mindset. They expected to lose, but we worked our rear ends off to win.
"And it's not anything I did. It's easy when you have all those stallions out there. It wasn't like they didn't have talent when I got here. They just learned how to work hard at something. Everyone wants to be good, but most people don't know how to get there. They didn't know how to work hard to be a good baseball player."
Rasmus has preached work in the weight room, a year-long program of long-tossing and batting practice and dedication to the task of becoming a better ballplayer. It sounds simple enough, a formula that is likely repeated at schools throughout the country. Yet it seems to have worked better for Russell County High.
Rasmus has fielded calls from more than 100 parents in neighboring communities who want to move to his school district just to be part of the program. While Rasmus' detractors have charged him with recruiting -- a charge he emphatically denies -- and slandered him and the team on local Internet message boards, he remains undaunted in his approach.
Rasmus has answered all his critics, dealt with eligibility issues stemming from transfers and worked hard to keep his players focused. And now he has what appears to be a dynasty on his hands, with the program's initial success only helping to make it stronger in the future.
"When I was younger, everyone around here wanted to play football," Kiker said. "There were some guys in the area who got drafted and for some of us, that was our goal, too. But now, we have young kids coming to our games and they are into it and we're happy about that.
"This program is going to be good at least the next five or six years. We have two strong arms coming back next year and there is talent as far down as ninth grade. If you're playing with good people, you're going to play better. You know there are going to be scouts here now and you're going to get that recognition."
It's not difficult to get that kind of recognition when your team sports five pitchers who can bring it in the mid-90s. Recently one Major League cross-checker was in Seale to work out Coe and watch him take batting practice. After seeing him line shots all over the park, he asked for the youngster to see some live pitching and Rasmus sent in one of his juniors, whose blistering fastballs gave Coe some trouble.
"It was almost unfair because Coe hadn't seen live pitching in two weeks," said Rasmus, a former Angels farmhand. "The cross-checker was asking what we do to get these guys who throw 95 miles an hour. It's just a program of long-tossing year round. It's nothing I created."
Kiker, a southpaw, has a mid-90s fastball and above-average breaking pitches. Another Major League scouting director predicted he would be among the first 30 players chosen next month. Rasmus, meanwhile, also possesses a big-time arm and does much of his damage with a power breaking ball. The aforementioned scouting director predicted Rasmus would go sometime during the second round on June 6.
As for Coe, he predicted a fourth- to-seventh-round selection, adding that his stock is improving as the draft nears.
"You rarely find a team that has five or six guys who can throw in the 90s like that," the scouting director said. "Maybe one or two, but you don't see much more than that. I was at their playoff game [this month] when they got eliminated and there were six guys in the game throwing 92 or better. That's just an impressive, unprecedented display."
Russell County's season may be over and the field may be quiet. But the commotion the Warriors have caused has certainly made some noise and the ripple effect will be felt throughout next month's draft.
Kevin Czerwinski is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.