Kamide’s Korner: Loudoun County, The Center of Virginia’s Baseball Universe

August 4 - Much like Fairfax County was for much of 1990s, Hampton Roads was for the following decade and the Richmond area was at the end of the 2000s, Loudoun County has become the biggest hotbed for baseball talent in Virginia. 

Do other areas have arguments? Sure. But the state’s third-largest county - with a population of just under 410,000 - can provide the best case. And I don’t think it’s even really close. 

Since 2014, six teams from the county have reached high school state championship games. Loudoun Valley won the 3A title in 2014 and returned to the final the following spring. Stone Bridge won a 5A title in 2015, and Ashburn rival Briar Woods won it two years later. Riverside, which was the county’s 14th and newest school until Independence opens its doors later this month, advanced to the 3A final in 2017 and the Class 4 final this past spring. 

The county’s prep success doesn’t end there. Both Loudoun-based districts, the Dulles and Potomac, are as deep as any in the state. Nine of the 14 teams in those leagues had winning campaigns this past spring. Seven of Loudoun’s 14 schools have made state tournament appearances in the past five years.

Leesburg Post 34 continually fields one of the top American Legion programs in the state, and two years ago won a regional championship and played in the World Series. They play their home games at one of my favorite places to watch a game, Fireman’s FIeld in Purcellville. 

Travel and showcase ball has become the rage this decade, and the Diamond Elite program has quickly become one of the most-respected on the recruiting circuit. They’ve won numerous tournaments and have helped develop several collegiate players. 

At the professional level, two Ashburn natives have pitched in the Major Leagues in the past few years in Broad Run graduates Conor Mullee and Taylor Clarke. A third, J.B. Bukauskas, was the 15th overall selection in the 2017 MLB Draft and if he’s not called up this September, chances are pretty good he’ll crack the Arizona Diamondbacks’ 25-man roster next year. He could one day join Clarke in Arizona’s rotation.

Loudoun may very well produce another first-round pick next June, when many expect Potomac Falls left-hander Nate Savino to be the first prep southpaw off the board. This year, Woodgrove’s big right-hander, Nick Lockhart, was the only area high schooler to be picked when he was taken in the 12th round and he signed with the Texas Rangers. 

And then there’s the little guys, who certainly don’t play small. 

Loudoun South Little League’s American All-Stars repeated as state champions last month and will play on national television tomorrow night attempting to get back to the Southeast Region championship game for a second straight year. They’re attempting to become Virginia’s first team to advance to the World Series since Central Springfield in 1994. 

For me, that would be the closing argument. Case closed. 

Kamide’s Korner: VHSL Comes Up Small in Providing Big-Game State Tournament Atmosphere

June 6 - When it comes to showcasing the baseball teams at its largest schools, the Virginia High School League is failing.

While surrounding states have placed an emphasis on creating an exciting environment for teams - with semifinal and championship games held on fields at major universities or minor league ballparks - the VHSL hosts those games for its top two classifications on high school fields.

It’s bad enough that the semifinals begin at 10 a.m. on a Friday, so only adult fans taking off work and students who are either playing hooky or out of school for the summer break are able to attend. And now this year, they’ve decided to hold the finals for Class 5 and Class 6 at high school fields roughly 10 minutes from each other … at the same time, 12:30 p.m. on Saturday.

The VHSL just doesn’t get it. Or maybe, it just don’t care about creating a big-game atmosphere for its student-athletes.

Let me state that this is no knock on those Richmond-area schools, Glen Allen and Deep Run, which have very nice complexes. They just pale in comparison to what the state’s governing body for private schools, the Virginia Independent Schools Athletic Association, has in place for its teams. Or where the VHSL holds the championship games for its four smaller classifications. Or the venues that host the final four in nearby states such as Pennsylvania, Maryland, North Carolina and West Virginia.

The VISAA holds the semifinals and final for all three of its classifications at Shepard Stadium in Colonial Heights, a beautiful historic ballpark south of Richmond. The championship games for the VHSL’s two smallest classifications are held on the turf diamond at Radford University’s stadium, and the finals for the middle classifications are played at Salem Memorial Stadium, a 6,300-seat park that serves as the home of the Single-A Salem Red Sox.

In Maryland, the larger schools have their state semifinals held at Shirley Povich Field in Bethesda, the home of Georgetown University. They then play the championship game at Ripken Stadium, the home of the Single-A Aberdeen Ironbirds. Big schools in Pennsylvania have their semifinals and final at Penn State. In West Virginia, the semifinals and final for all three classifications are held at Appalachian Power Park, the home of the Single-A West Virginia Power.

Down in North Carolina, the best-of-three state championship series for its four classes are split between the University of North Carolina at Greensboro and at Five County Stadium, the home of the Single-A Carolina Mudcats. Across the Potomac in Washington, D.C., the city championship game is hosted on the turf stadium field at the Nationals Youth Academy.

Meanwhile, in Virginia this week, the state’s best four public school teams in its top two classes will play on high school fields.

And on Saturday, media members like myself, college coaches hoping to recruit, and the casual baseball fan without allegiance to any of the four teams playing on the final day of the season will all have to choose between attending the Class 5 final or the Class 6 final.  

There are fantastic new or renovated stadiums at the University of Richmond, James Madison University, Virginia Tech, the University of Virginia and at Liberty University. In Arlington, Barcroft Park - the home of George Washington University - has become one of the state’s best facilities during its recent upgrades.

That’s where this week’s Class 5 and Class 6 state tournament games should be held. It’s time for the VHSL to step up its game and provide these teams with the proper setting and platform that they’ve earned.

Kamide’s Korner: Harper’s (Br)exit Could be Snyder, Guyer’s Gain

March 5 - Count me among those disappointed that Bryce Harper chose to sign with the Phillies and won’t be returning to the middle of the Nationals’ order this year. For me, Harper’s at-bats were must-see anytime I was able to take in a Nats game.

Several years ago, I took a date to a game and we were late arriving to Nationals Park. Of course, the Baseball Gods punished me and we missed Harper homering in the first inning. A few innings later, painfully-slow bartending at the Red Porch cost me his second upper-deck bomb that day.

After that, whenever I was watching or listening to a Nats game, I ensured I was tuned in to his at-bats. I also stopped seeing that young lady - us baseball guys are superstitious, after all, and there was just too much bad juju involved with missing two Harper homers while attending our first game together.

The emotion shown by area baseball fans over the past week demonstrates how polarizing a figure Harper was while in D.C. - love him or hate him, you were and likely will continue to be drawn to him. He’s a generational talent and has that “it” factor that makes it hard to take your eyes off him when he’s in the batter’s box. Who knows if the Nats will be better or worse off without him - you certainly won’t struggle to find commentary online covering that topic - but one thing is for sure, I’ll miss watching him wear the Curly W on his cap.

While Harper’s exit has resulted in varying emotions locally, it could lead to some positive news for Northern Virginia fans.

Over the winter, Washington signed former Westfield star Brandon Snyder to a minor league deal and invited him to big league camp as he tries to make the Majors with a sixth team. If Harper had re-signed with the Nats, that likely would have sealed Snyder’s fate as a Triple-A guy to start the year. Instead, Snyder, who in spring training has logged more time than anyone in Harper’s old post in right field, could make the club as the Nats’ fifth outfielder and a backup option at both corner infield spots.

Snyder has certainly taken advantage of Harper’s absence. His go-ahead grand slam was the difference in a 10-6 win over the Twins on Saturday, and he entered the day hitting .286 with six RBI in 18 at-bats this spring.

Also affected by Harper’s decision is Brandon Guyer, the former Herndon and UVA standout.

The White Sox were rumored to be in on the Bryce Sweepstakes (as well as Manny Machado), but by not landing him, Guyer’s chances of making the club improved after he was signed in early February to a minor league deal with an invite to camp. Guyer, the former Rays and Indians outfielder, is back in the lineup today as a DH after missing 10 days with right elbow soreness, and he is hoping to make Chicago’s roster in a platoon role against lefties.

Like many baseball fans in our area, I’ll miss Harp. But I’ve already moved on, and I’ve found a new guy that’ll motivate me to get to the ballpark on time. I’ve got my Juan Soto T-shirt on order.

Hopefully, I’ll also have my Snyder and Guyer T-shirts on order early next month.

Kamide’s Korner: NOVA's MLB Front Office Presence Grows with Elias' Hiring

November 19 - Mike Elias was officially introduced today by the Baltimore Orioles, which means the baseball operations for three of the American League’s 15 clubs are now overseen by general managers with Northern Virginia roots.

Elias, a 2001 graduate of Alexandria’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, joins Minnesota’s Thad Levine and Kansas City’s Dayton Moore as general managers with local ties.

Levine, who was hired by the Twins in November 2016, is a 1990 graduate of T.C. Williams who went on to play at Division III Haverford College in Pennsylvania before getting his MBA at UCLA. And Moore, who played and coached at George Mason University, was hired by the Royals in June 2006 and oversaw the club as they advanced to back-to-back World Series and won a title in 2015.

Moore has a number of area natives on his operations and coaching staff, including: another former Mason player and coach in J.J. Picollo, the Royals’ assistant general manager for player personnel; Jin Wong, their assistant general manager for baseball administration, was a Division III All-American at Mary Washington; director of scouting Lonnie Goldberg, a Marshall High School and Mason alum; scout Ken Munoz, yet another former Mason player and coach and the former coach at West Springfield; and minor league hitting coach Brian Buchanan, a standout at Fairfax and the University of Virginia who later played for five seasons in the big leagues.

The presence of Northern Virginia natives in baseball operations doesn’t end there.

Ned Rice, a classmate of Elias’ at Jefferson, spent 11 years working for the Orioles before being hired as an assistant general manager with the Philadelphia Phillies in February 2016. And also like Elias, he was a candidate for the Orioles’ GM position.

Former Los Angeles Dodgers general manager Paul DePodesta, who is now in the front office with the Cleveland Browns and was one of the main character subjects in the popular book and movie Moneyball, is a 1991 graduate of Episcopal. Moneyball documented the Oakland A’s pioneering approach to the sophisticated sabermetrics that was initially embraced by Billy Beane and DePodesta and is now a common method used to scout and analyze players.

Former C.D. Hylton and George Mason star Mike Colangelo was a member of the A’s 2002 team that served as the inspiration for the book and movie. DePodesta was teammates with Levine while the two played in Alexandria youth soccer leagues in the late 1980s.

Also of note: Bruce Bochy, a three-time World Series champion manager with the San Francisco, played youth ball in Falls Church’s Bailey’s Crossroads Little League (now Mason District LL) while his father was stationed in the area by the Army. And just beyond Northern Virginia, three additional current GMs attended college: the New York Yankees’ Brian Cashman played at Catholic University, the Seattle Mariners’ Jerry Dipoto played at Virginia Commonwealth, and the Tampa Bay Rays’ Eric Neander went to Virginia Tech.

Baltimore’s hiring of the 35-year-old Elias - who set a TJ program record with 18 career wins and went on to pitch at Yale - signals a shift in in the organization’s approach to player scouting and development. Gone are old-school manager Buck Showalter and general manager Dan Duquette, who are both in their 60s. Enter a rising front office star in Elias, who has spent his 13 years in professional baseball in scouting and helped build the roster of the 2017 World Series champion Houston Astros.

Further indication that Baltimore will be embracing the analytics that now drive baseball is Elias bringing along Sig Mejdal, a former NASA engineer who worked for him in Houston.

Mejdal’s resume is impressive, he earned multiple degrees in engineering, another in cognitive psychology, and while at NASA figured out ways for astronauts on the International Space Station to sleep better. Those smarts have transferred to baseball, which he got involved in after gaining inspiration from Moneyball. His analytical work with the Astros proved integral in the club building one of baseball’s best teams.

Even with the Nationals becoming the overwhelming team supported by Northern Virginia baseball fans, many area Orioles fans still exist due to the 34-year gap that Washington, D.C. endured without a Major League team.

Those fans - who didn’t have much to cheer about during a 115-loss season in 2018 - now have new life with one of baseball’s top young minds shaping Baltimore’s future.

Photos of Dayton Moore, Thad Levine and Mike Elias courtesy

Kamide’s Korner: Latest Mass Shooting Hits Home For Everyone in Baseball Community

November 10 - There was nobody that represented what America should be more than Cody Coffman. And yet, it is today’s America that has taken him from us.

Only 22, Cody was one of the 12 victims of the mass shooting at a bar in Thousand Oaks, CA on Wednesday night. He was a USSSA umpire and the chief umpire for the Camarillo Pony Baseball youth league, wore cowboy boots and a cowboy hat around town, and planned to enlist in the Army. He had three young brothers that looked up to him, and a little sister on the way, due to be born at the end of the month.

She will never get to meet him.

Blake Dingman was 21 years old, a former baseball player at nearby Hillcrest Christian School. He was also one of the victims killed on Wednesday night.

This column isn’t directly related to Northern Virginia, which is what I generally write about. I don’t care. This latest shooting, which occurred some 2,700 miles away on the other side of the country, should hit home for anyone involved in the game of baseball. Mass shootings have become the norm in our country, they represent what apparently is the new America.

Coffman was a leader who "loved working with the kids,” commented an umpiring colleague. He died while attempting to protect others, according to several reports. By all accounts, and I’ve read and watched several online these past two days, he had a tremendous future ahead of him. Dingman was described by his high school coach in a story in the Thousand Oaks Acorn as someone with a “magnetic personality,” adding that, “He loved the game of baseball but he loved his friends and family even more.”

It’s got to stop. For parents in our area, simply go online and watch the video of Coffman’s father, who was donning a Los Angeles Dodgers hat in front of reporters when he revealed that his son was one of the victims. The man had just had his life ripped to shreds, and watching him is heartbreaking. That could be any of you. Cody and Blake could be any of us.

Just a few days before Veterans Day Weekend, two military veterans - a former Navy SEAL and former Marine - were among those killed in the shooting. The shooter was also a military veteran, reportedly suffering from PTSD. Since the shooting at the Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh on Oct. 27, 90 people have been shot in 12 mass shootings in the United States - and 36 died. One of the shootings occurred in Watertown, N.Y., where my cousin is a police officer. A police officer at the Thousand Oaks shooting was also one of the victims after reporting to the scene and entering the bar in attempt to halt the shooter. That sure gives me pause.

I’ll be the first to tell you that I am pro guns, and that I’m a republican who voted for Donald Trump. And while our President does, says or tweets something each day to make me question that ballot, my ability to defend our laws regarding firearms also wanes.

It’s one of the biggest issues facing our country today, and something needs to change.

We had two taken from our extended baseball family on Wednesday night. Our military, celebrating their brothers this weekend, now mourns additional unnecessary losses. This morning, the league that Coffman umpired for will be holding a moment of silence at 7:50 a.m. their time - 10:50 a.m. EST - at Veterans Field in Camarillo, CA’s Freedom Park. I challenge everyone reading this column to take that moment to reflect on what’s important in your life, and what it would be like to have that taken away in an instant.

I know I will be.

Rest in peace, Cody and Blake. Many of our readers are thousands of miles away, but very much present with your loved ones and with heavy hearts this morning.

Photos of Blake Dingman, left, and Cody Coffman, right, courtesy of their respective families

Kamide’s Korner: The Evolution of Josh Gjormand, College Ballplayer

November 6 - When I first met Josh Gjormand, he was 3 years old. It was 2005, and I was in my first season coaching as an assistant under his father, Pudge, at Madison High School.

It didn’t take me long to realize that Josh was going to have a long relationship with the game of baseball. He was the son of a coach who was well on his way to becoming a baseball icon in Vienna and in Northern Virginia. That would certainly allow for him to be around the game, to learn the game from an early age, and to either embrace the game - or resent it. Not all coaches’ sons, after all, grow up to dig the game as much as their pops.

Josh did.

A fixture at Madison’s practices and games and at the summer camps his father runs, Josh immersed himself in the game as he came up in the Reston Little League and with the MVP Terps and MVP Royals travel teams. Early on, Pudge would boast proudly of how advanced his son’s knowledge was of the many intricacies the game offered - how many elementary school kids do you know who study a pitcher’s move? Or try and pick up an opposing team’s signs? He latched onto Pudge’s deep network of coaches, learning pitching from the likes of Morgan Spencer, John Thomas, J.J. Hollenbeck, Jason Farley and Justin Counts, hitting from Counts, Galvin Morris and Scott Rowland, base running from Andrew Baird and T.J. Ehrsam, and how to initially adapt to the high school game from Warhawks JV coach Robbie Robeson.

But despite being around all that knowledge, it wasn’t always easy.

As anyone who has played for Pudge will tell you, he can be tough. The coach consistently demands your best, and that is a major reason for the success of his teams. It’s also what makes him at times hard to play for, and some kids over the past two decades have backed down from those expectations. The one’s who haven’t have helped him build one of the state’s top programs. It’s like Tom Hanks said in ‘A League of Their Own’, “The hard is what makes it great”.

Josh has spent his childhood around that intimidating presence 24 hours a day, seven days a week. I witnessed the tough love several times, and have often wondered how I would have responded in the same situation. Pudge hasn’t created a ‘Daddy Ball’ environment for his sons - Josh or his younger brother, Trevor - to coast through the game with every advantage and having things handed to them. It’s probably accepted that he was harder on Josh than any of his players, and wanted to ensure he earned everything he was given. It’s been tough love, but in the end, it’s simply been love.

And what his sons maybe don’t always know is that their father - the skipper with the enormous presence dubbed for years as the “Mayor of Vienna” - can be a big softie and lights up when their names are brought up by his coaching buddies. As hard as Pudge has pushed Josh, he’s also the first one to praise him.

And that praise certainly doesn’t come exclusively from his father.

“I have literally watched Josh grow up on the baseball field and I couldn’t be more proud of the things he has accomplished,” Spencer said. “He has always been an extremely hard and motivated player. It can’t be easy growing up in the shadows of the best coach in Northern Virginia, let alone playing for him as your dad. I know it hasn’t been easy, [and] he earned every bit of playing time he got.”

Added Baird, the former Stone Bridge coach who has returned to Madison’s staff, via Twitter: “For the last 18 [years], I have watched a boy grow into an amazing young man. I got a call from him tonight thanking me for my help over the years and that he had committed to further his baseball career at Lynchburg … I am very proud of you and excited for you.”

Josh never backed down from the pressure of being Pudge’s son. He embraced it, overcame the “coaches’ son” label through his play on the field, and did so while growing up in a championship-hungry baseball community. He’s grown some thick skin, a trait that was never more evident then when he heard criticism of his father from other players, parents or members of the community - which somehow exists despite over 400 wins and two state titles. He simply used that as fuel and continued about his business with the quiet confidence that now defines him as a player.

“He’s a tough competitor on the mound and at the plate,” Rowland said. “He approaches the game the right way, and it’s obvious he comes to play every game.”

Josh mastered the left-handed pickoff move largely from his work with Spencer, the southpaw head coach at South Lakes who set pickoff records in high school and college and the reason he chose to wear No. 18 at Madison. He learned how to be efficient - he tossed a 53-pitch, 6-inning complete game against Chantilly last spring - and to locate multiple pitches from the likes of Counts, Madison’s longtime pitching coach, and Thomas, the new skipper at Lake Braddock who coached him on several youth teams.

“He plays the game as hard as he can every time he takes the field and backs down from no one,” Thomas said. “His overall baseball IQ and feel for the game is off the charts for a high school kid. I’d take nine of him any day of the week.”

He’s grown up in the epitome of a baseball family: both parents have baseball-themed personalized license plates; his older sister, Samantha, was the Warhawks’ team manager and now holds the same duties at JMU; vacations are based around baseball tournaments and trips; and he’s spent maybe 100 (or more?) games in his father’s seats along the third base line at Nationals Park. Growing up, Josh had two dozen de facto older brothers on the Warhawks that he was around for four months beginning each February. He studied their games and how they prepared. Now, he’s one of those Warhawks in his final year at the school and passing that knowledge onto his younger brother.

Josh has battled a lack of physical stature - he’s 5-foot-10 and maybe 160 pounds - with a fastball that might reach 80 MPH on a good day. Nonetheless, he hit his way into a second-team Region 6D selection as a first baseman last spring, and on the mound finds ways to miss bats while shutting down the running game. He’s an outstanding defender who routinely bails fellow infielders out by picking errant throws, and provides on-field leadership as an extension of the coaching staff.

Late last month, we saw the culmination of a lifetime of hard work and preparation when he accepted an offer to play at the University of Lynchburg. For many of us, it was the next - and perhaps, most important - step in who we first knew as a youngster becoming a man.

“It finally sunk in that my little boy is a senior when he made that call to [Lynchburg] coach [Lucas] Jones on Monday night to commit,” Pudge wrote on his Facebook page. “So proud of the way he goes about his business and the young man he's become!”

Added Spencer: “He is an extremely smart and tough little player, Lynchburg is getting a great young man and player. He is tough as nails, has a desire to win, and most importantly, knows how to win.”

Congratulations Josh, you’ve made a lot of people involved in Northern Virginia baseball very proud. Including this writer.

Photos of Josh Gjormand by Albert Jacquez