PHOENIX – Zach Graefser was a baseball coach at St. Louis Community College for eight years. He loved developing players and watching them take the next step. But in 2014, his life took a dramatic turn, one that completely changed his life.
Graefser was offered an opportunity to work with MLB International, an organization that looks to promote the game of baseball abroad. The position required him to leave everything he knew behind and move to London. He decided to take the leap of faith and has lived in the UK ever since.
“We had recognized there was a lot of talent over in Europe, and there was very little exposure to universities and even pro clubs,” Graefser said. “Back in 2016, we decided we’d bring a team over [to the U.S.] and expose them to as much of the next level as we can.”
Here, the MLB International College Showcase Tour was born. Since 2016, MLB has brought a group of high-school-age players to the United States each year, excluding 2020 and 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. On Sept. 26, 31 players arrived in the Phoenix area to participate in the challenge.
These prospects, representing 10 different countries, are playing on six different teams of varying skill levels during their 11-day trip, while also visiting a series of college campuses. The opposing teams range from high school program IMG Academy to a Kansas City Royals developmental squad, providing a great test across all skill levels.
It’s also an opportunity to get attention from scouts in countries where baseball isn’t as popular.
“It’s pretty helpful, because in Germany there are not a lot of scouts coming,” said prospect Darrion Richards. “It’s good to show what you got.”
Richards has a German mother and an American father, having spent his entire life living in Germany. Originally from Stuttgart, he is currently playing for a professional baseball team in Paderborn and is returning to the showcase for the second year in a row.
Returning was particularly appealing to Richards because of the high-level coaching provided at the event. Former MLB players are brought in to help coach the team. This year, World Series champions David Eckstein and Jeff Conine were a part of the staff.
Roger McDowell, a 12-year MLB veteran and former pitching coach for the Atlanta Braves and Baltimore Orioles, is coaching on the tour for the second time. Every prospect arrives at the showcase with a different baseline understanding of baseball, McDowell points out, which makes his responsibility as a teacher extremely important.
“You got kids from all over the world, and the language isn’t as much of a barrier as is where they are in their development and what their knowledge of the sport looks like,” McDowell said. “Sometimes you got to remember how old these young men are. They didn’t have the same environment growing up around the sport of baseball that we do here in the United States.”
The exposure of the showcase in recent years is increasingly paying dividends for these international players. More prospects are getting collegiate scholarship opportunities, and some are even signing contracts with MLB organizations.
Alessandro Ercolani, an International College Showcase participant in 2019, is currently pitching for the Salt River Rafters of the Arizona Fall League as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates organization. Ercolani is from the smaller European nation of San Marino, which has a population under 34,000. Graefser took this year’s group to watch Ercolani pitch Thursday. I
It is moving for Graefser to watch his former players progress.
“I just remember that young man sitting in the stands watching a [Fall League] game four years ago,” Graefser said. “Seeing him progress and grow as a human, it’s just incredible.”
Graefser has watched America’s pastime grow in non-traditional baseball countries since the showcase was first organized. He has been heavily involved in the sport’s development in Great Britain, which earned its first-ever bid to the World Baseball Classic earlier this year. Graefser served as the pitching coach for the squad.
“What we’re seeing right now, especially in Europe and Australia, is an influx of teams getting better,” Graefser said. “These guys right here, they’re the next wave, both coaching-wise and playing-wise. Hopefully, they take it back to their countries, they teach them what they learn over here, and they grow the game.”
Max Durrington is also watching baseball blossom in his home country of Australia, which traditionally prioritizes cricket. The current showcase participant is excited to be a part of baseball’s rise down under.
“It is growing, as more people are getting involved with baseball more and finding out they love it,” Durrington said. “It is good to do trips like this also because it encourages cricket players or younger athletes to give baseball a shot, showing there’s more of a future in it.”
Being around baseball players from across the world has reaffirmed Durrington’s passion for the sport.
“It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Durrington said. “You got players from Czech Republic, Germany, all these different players from around the world. You see the accents, the languages, and also what baseball is like back in their home country.”
The International College Showcase game schedule concludes with a matchup Friday against Grand Canyon University. The best feeling for McDowell and the other coaches is what takes place in the months following the trip.
“The rewarding part is when these young men get to come to the U.S., get an opportunity to pursue baseball, and also get an education,” McDowell said. “Some kids are going to junior college, community college and even D-1 schools. That’s the joy you get is that they’re getting an opportunity to further their career.”