A Baseball School For Big League Dreamers For more than a century, countless Americans have dreamed of playing Major League Baseball. Few ever make it, but there is a place in Bradenton, Fla., that nurtures those dreams. IMG Academies takes students as young as 11 and mixes intense baseball training with an academic education.
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A Baseball School For Big League Dreamers

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A Baseball School For Big League Dreamers

A Baseball School For Big League Dreamers

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Audie Cornish.


And I'm Melissa Block. Few boys who dream of playing Major League baseball ever get there, but some are willing to change their lives to try. For our American Dream series, NPR's Robert Benincasa visited a place where those dreams are nurtured.

ROBERT BENINCASA, BYLINE: For most of us, the dream starts to fade sometime in high school when we realize we won't be starting in game seven of the World Series. So we go from player to fan, watching others chase greatness on the diamond. But somewhere between the Little League field and Yankee Stadium, there's this place.


BENINCASA: Ketchum Marsh, a high school senior from Chatham, Massachusetts, looks in from third base. It's 90 degrees and sunny for this intrasquad game at IMG Academies, a private sports school in Bradenton, Florida.


BENINCASA: Ketch's passion for baseball began when he was 8. That's when his mom offered room and board to players from college baseball's elite Cape Cod League. The players started tossing the ball around with Ketch and made him a batboy. He was hooked.

KETCHUM MARSH: Just hearing how they talked, hearing how the coaches talked, watching the game, you kind of just don't want to leave the field at the end of the night. You just want to keep going back. You just want to stay there.

BENINCASA: So in eighth grade, Ketch started at IMG, spending half the day in the classroom and half on the field.

KEN BOLEK: There weren't a lot of things that just came naturally to him as an athlete.

BENINCASA: That's IMG baseball chief Ken Bolek.

BOLEK: His first semester here, the coaches evaluated a successful day by the fact that he wasn't maimed or killed out on the field from a lack of proficiency.



BENINCASA: Now, Ketch's coaches put him among the school's most improved. Most players here won't ever put on a big-league uniform, but virtually all of them want to play college ball, Division I if they can make it. The pitcher on Ketch's team is already headed there. He'll play for the University of Florida's team after he graduates in 2014.

CAMERON VARGA: My name is Cameron Varga. I'm a sophomore.

BENINCASA: How hard are you throwing this year?

VARGA: Top at 95. But I pitch like 91, 93, 94, consistently.


BENINCASA: Varga strikes out the side in the first inning and trots to the dugout. Pitching coach Dave Shepard is waiting.

DAVE SHEPARD: You struck out the side...

VARGA: Mm-hmm.

SHEPARD: ...and I'll give you that. But as a starting pitcher, you got to know what the emphasis down the road for you is going to be.

BENINCASA: As Varga gets a Gatorade, Shepard tells me the young pitcher has great potential.

SHEPARD: He struck out the side in the first inning, but he threw 20 pitches. As a pitching coach, I'm looking for him to throw six pitches and get three outs and save 14 pitches for later.

BENINCASA: Baseball folklore tells us the scrappiest kid on the sandlot has a shot at the show, but IMG is a long way from St. Mary's Industrial School for Boys, the Baltimore orphanage that produced Babe Ruth. Tuition, room and board here is about $70,000 a year. With that price of admission comes the insight of baseball veterans, like Shepard and Bolek. They see beyond young men's dreams and deeper into their lives. Bolek says it's not always about baseball.

BOLEK: If we do a good job stressing certain characteristics and traits that are necessary for anybody leaving here to be successful regardless of what the volition is, that's the grand slam for us.


BENINCASA: Today's game ends in a one-run loss for Ketch and Cameron's team. I intercept Ketch near third base. When you're in the big leagues, you're going to have to stop for the after-game analysis, so let's do it.

MARSH: OK. I was happy with my at bats.

BENINCASA: These players may have big-league dreams, but the odds are long, even for the very best. Just 1,200 players are drafted each year. Ketch knows Major League rosters have only 750 active slots.

MARSH: The chances are, you know, there's not a lot of kids that are going to be making a living playing this game. If you just think about the numbers, you know, the inspiration won't always be there.

BENINCASA: Whether or not Ketch makes it to Cooperstown, come spring, he'll be doing what he loves, playing baseball, for the Southwestern University Pirates in Georgetown, Texas. Robert Benincasa, NPR News.

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