Sports

Perfect Game helps promising young baseball players get noticed - at a cost

Cedar Rapids-based company has become a youth baseball powerhouse

Iowa Select 2023 Oberthien teammates celebrate July 7 with Pierce Anderson (center) after Anderson hit a deep single to left field that scored the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning of their baseball game against Gamers 14 Blue of the World Wood Bat Association 14U national championship tournament at Prospect Meadows in Marion. Perfect Game helped the new baseball complex become a reality when it committed to bring 1,000 teams annually to Prospect Meadows for 15 years. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
Iowa Select 2023 Oberthien teammates celebrate July 7 with Pierce Anderson (center) after Anderson hit a deep single to left field that scored the winning run in the bottom of the seventh inning of their baseball game against Gamers 14 Blue of the World Wood Bat Association 14U national championship tournament at Prospect Meadows in Marion. Perfect Game helped the new baseball complex become a reality when it committed to bring 1,000 teams annually to Prospect Meadows for 15 years. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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CEDAR RAPIDS — When Jerry Ford started Perfect Game in 1995, his business should’ve gone bankrupt “like every day” for the first three years, as he sees it.

“We just didn’t want to fail at baseball,” said Ford, a former scout for the Minnesota Twins and coach at Iowa Wesleyan.

Yet almost 25 years later, Cedar Rapids-based Perfect Game has grown into a national powerhouse in the youth baseball industry, with scouting services and events to increase players’ exposure held from Major League Baseball ballparks in San Diego to a field in the Czech Republic.

“If somebody would’ve asked me if this was going to happen in the future, I would’ve said, ‘Oh (expletive), you’re crazy,’” Ford said.

While he declined to say how much the private company is worth, he said the management team would not sell if offered $100 million.

A pipeline expands

Perfect Game has been a must for Iowans looking to make it to baseball’s major leagues.

Every Iowan who has made an MLB debut in the last decade is a Perfect Game alumnus, based on data from the Baseball Almanac and Perfect Game. Every active MLB player from Iowa is a Perfect Game alumnus as well.

Simply put, Perfect Game provides the opportunity for aspiring young players to be noticed by scouts and coaches — for a price.

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Perfect Game hosts tournaments and exposure events for amateur baseball players, while offering scouting information from those events to college coaches and MLB front offices through subscriptions.

Players can attend its tournaments through travel baseball teams or be invited to a showcase event to demonstrate individual skills.

Ford initially wanted Perfect Game to give Iowa high school talent a better chance at attention from MLB scouts and college coaches.

Eric Wordekemper, a Storm Lake native who made it to Triple A in the New York Yankees’ farm system, credited Ford and Perfect Game with getting the notice of scouts who likely wouldn’t have been looking in Storm Lake.

“It was an internet instant tap of the button,” Wordekemper said. “Someone could find my numbers and my success. It was nationwide. ... It was a way to get my name out there. It helped me as a small-town kid.”

Wordekemper was not the only success story, either. Players including Joel Hanrahan of Norwalk, Jeff Clement of Marshalltown and Ryan Sweeney of Cedar Rapids were some of the first participants in Perfect Game and subsequently made to the big leagues.

“Because we had the best players in the entire state in one location at one time, what was kind of an afterthought as far as scouting Iowa baseball became like the easiest thing in the world,” Ford said. “You just go to one place and you see them all.”

But Perfect Game needed to expand to talent hotbeds like Texas and Florida to be profitable. There wasn’t enough money in Iowa.

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“I would’ve been happier than hell just to make a modest income and just never leave the state of Iowa,” Ford said.

But Perfect Game now boasts 12,618 alumni who have been selected in the MLB draft and 1,336 alumni who have made MLB debuts. Reigning National League MVP Christian Yelich of the Milwaukee Brewers, Chicago Cubs standout Javier Baez and two-time American League MVP Mike Trout all are Perfect Game alumni.

Cost of exposure

Many in the industry don’t see the success of Perfect Game and similar companies as a positive for youth baseball.

“We have gotten to where we are as an industry by accident,” said Jules Johnson, director of Prospect Development Pipeline, created by USA Baseball and Major League Baseball in 2016 to offer free showcase events for players.

“Fifteen, 20 years ago, if you were to going to devise what the amateur baseball summer looks like for youth athletes, I don’t think we would have this pay-to-play model where kids and families are paying thousands of dollars traveling the country and paying these third-party operators,” he said.

One of the key concerns of people like Johnson is the cost of events like those Perfect Game and others promote.

Parents often pay as much as $3,500 for their child to compete on a travel team going to Perfect Game events.

Perfect Game cut ties with one travel team that was charging $10,000 per player, Ford said.

Jeff Passan, an ESPN reporter formerly with Yahoo Sports, described Perfect Game in his 2016 book, “The Arm: Inside the Billion-Dollar Mystery of the Most Valuable Commodity in Sports,” as “an outsized machine that profits off teenage boys and glory-hungry parents.”

Ford dismissed the criticism, saying it’s common to find ways of financially helping promising young players.

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Travel teams often will cover the costs of elite athletes, like former National League MVP Andrew McCutchen, by redistributing fees paid to the teams by other athletes on the teams.

But for athletes who don’t have Division I-caliber potential, Ford said other leagues like American Legion baseball might be a better fit.

To get more attention from scouts and coaches than what a tournament can provide, Perfect Game also holds showcase events.

One of those was at Prospect Meadows, a new $14 million baseball complex in Marion.

Perfect Game, one of its largest contributors, also helped make the baseball complex become a reality by committing to bring 1,000 teams annually to Prospect Meadows for 15 years.

The recent showcase event cost $649 for parents looking to get their child more exposure to college coaches, according to the Prospect Meadows website.

Ford said there are ways of helping promising young players who can’t afford a showcase, but wouldn’t provide details of how that works.

“If we know of a kid that wants to get in our event, it happens all the time. But I can’t publicize it,” he said.

Access to exposure

While Ford said attendance at a Perfect Game event is not required for a player to improve in the organization’s rankings, data from Perfect Game shows almost every player ranked highly has participated in Perfect Game events.

The top player in the Perfect Game rankings for the class of 2018, Matthew Liberatore from Peoria, Ariz., went to 30 Perfect Game events. The second-ranked player, Ethan Hankins from Cumming, Ga., attended 45 events.

Every player in the top 100 of Perfect Game’s rankings in the high school class of 2019 went to Perfect Game events. Even a player from Hawaii, Shane Sasaki, made it to two events.

A better ranking for a player can lead to more attention from college coaches and pro scouts, who often are well-connected to Perfect Game.

Wordekemper, now the pitching coach at Creighton University in Omaha, said he “absolutely” uses Perfect Game’s rankings when looking for recruits.

“It gives us a lead on the kids, and then we go and do our homework,” Wordekemper said. “It’s a huge platform for recruiting.”

Wordekemper isn’t the only one. Perfect Game’s website boasts testimonials from New York Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, Boston Red Sox General Manager Ben Cherington and an A-list of MLB All-Stars — Trout, Buster Posey, Justin Upton and Eric Hosmer.

“Perfect Game is a leading resource for anyone interested in amateur baseball, running top-notch events throughout the year which are followed closely by our scouts,” Cashman said in his testimonial. “Perfect Game player information and rankings are a valuable resource for us.”

Cherington described the Perfect Game player information as “extremely valuable.”

Costs add up

As parents travel to these events, other costs can quickly pile up.

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Perfect Game recommends using SkillShow to record video of performances at tournaments and showcases.

SkillShow notes on its website that parents “can never start too early” when purchasing a scouting video service.

Without SkillShow’s services, it “can delay or even destroy an athlete’s career,” the website notes. It does not give a price for those services.

Parents also struggle to keep up with travel costs. In the case of Keith Ott, a parent of one of the athletes recently competing at Prospect Meadows, he and his wife have paid to travel from Wisconsin to places including Oklahoma and Georgia while also paying $3,500 for their son to be on a team.

Their son has ambitions of playing college baseball and viewed playing for the Hitters, a team based in Racine, Wis., as a way of getting more exposure.

Perfect Game’s “pay-to-play” revenue model has captured the attention of USA Baseball and Major League Baseball.

Their joint effort, the Prospect Development Pipeline, holds showcase events that are free — allowing players of all economic backgrounds to seek the attention of college and pro scouts.

Johnson said it seeks to give athletes “the best experience possible without charging an arm and a leg for it.” It involves giving athletes objective feedback while providing exposure to MLB scouts.

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Prospect Development Pipeline evaluates everything from batting practice to vision at its own showcase events, along with hosting exhibition games. The free cost prevents the athletes from being “upcharged or upsold” on player data, Johnson said.

It also gives MLB a chance to bring in a more diverse talent pool, since athletes from lower economic backgrounds generally can’t afford the costs of showcases or tournaments.

Ford said he supports the work of Prospect Development Pipeline.

Injury concerns

Passan’s book also asserts that Perfect Game is partially responsible for the epidemic of arm injuries among young athletes, saying the creation of the company “dovetails” with the rise in Tommy John surgeries — a procedure where a tendon is removed from a different part of the body to replace a torn ligament in the arm.

Passan cited studies from the American Sports Medicine Institute showing connections between year-round baseball and the increase of Tommy John surgeries.

Ford strongly dismissed the criticism.

“It’s almost like we’re hammering at the kid’s elbow or something” in the book’s description, Ford said.

“It’s a baseball problem,” he added. “To that extent, we’re part of the problem. We do baseball.”

Ford cited Perfect Game’s strict pitch count limit as one of the reasons players are safe participating in its events. Limiting the number of pitches a player throws during an event is one of the recommendations the institute has made for reducing the risk of arm injuries that require Tommy John surgery.

The institute also recommends avoiding using radar guns that might encourage faster pitches, and pitching competitively for over eight months a year.

Perfect Game has events year-round and measures pitchers’ pitch speeds at every event.

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Did a player’s fastball hit only 93 mph instead of the 95 mph from a week earlier? Perfect Game’s website provides that information, along with a slew of other data on a player. Want to know how fast each of Washington Nationals star Stephen Strasburg’s pitches were when he was 17? The website has that, too.

Ford refuted any correlation between use of a radar gun and pitchers wanting to throw harder.

“Come on, man. Ever since I was born, if you’ve got a good arm, what do you do with it?” Ford asked. “Do you throw it a little slower because there is no radar gun there? You throw the ball as hard as you (expletive) can. That’s what good arms do.”

Beyond baseball

Perfect Game has a charity arm called the PG Foundation. According to its web page, which solicits donations, the foundation “has helped raise over $3 million for Pediatric Cancer for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, Rady Children’s Hospital, Golisano Children’s Hospital as well as to the Southwest Autism Research & Resource Center, the Boys and Girls club among others.”

The PG Foundation earned tax-exempt status in 2004, but public records from the IRS do not show any income or expenses for the foundation. There are no other records on file, including required Form 990s.

Ford laid out a broad vision for the charity, saying he hopes to have an impact like the LeBron James Family Foundation, which helps other charities like the Boys and Girls Clubs and seeks to improve the nation’s social fabric.

Ford said he envisions the PG Foundation helping children in at-risk areas who might not have the resources to succeed.

Whenever he’s traveling for Perfect Game, Ford said, he makes sure to visit the “bad areas” of town where he sees people who need to have other opportunities.

“We just want to grow baseball the best that we can, get more kids playing,” Ford said. “Just doing everything we can do to help the game.”

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