By Joshua Perry
Hometown Weekly Staff
With club sports taking over for the high school game as the primary conduit to getting into college athletics, many student-athletes and their families are finding it difficult to compete. For so-called niche sports, such as hockey or soccer, this has been a long-term issue, but the club mentality has now taken over baseball as well.
Three years ago, in response to the growing needs of the region’s baseball players, Mike Schell, a history teacher and varsity baseball coach at St. Sebastian’s in Needham, and Mike McGinn began a foundation to assist underserved athletes in making their mark and receiving college opportunities. The Cannonball Foundation has continued to grow and recently the organization found a new home in Medfield at Sluggers Academy to work year-round in building the skills of area ballplayers.
According to Schell, “We’re really going to be enhanced in what we can do because of Sluggers Academy. It will be far less challenging to do it here. We’re going to have year-round training sessions.”
The Cannonball Foundation will provide on the field training with top coaches, including those from various colleges in the region, as well as strength and conditioning work, nutritional education, and character building. The educational component of the training is very important for Schell. The foundation seeks to explain the college recruiting process and give their players the personalized attention they may not be receiving from their schools.
The foundation offers a select group of 16 players the added exposure of playing for the Cannonball Prospects team, which competes in showcase tournaments throughout the summer. Being on the Prospects offers added opportunities for players to highlight their skills in front of college coaches and recruiters that may not be focused on the high school game. This is a significant change in the game of baseball in the past decade, since Schell himself was recruited to play at Holy Cross.
“When I was going through the recruiting process Legion was the place to play and AAU was becoming an option. Now it’s the reverse,” said Schell. “There are resources that a lot of the clubs and organizations can offer you, but you can’t be middle class to play ball anymore. For a family that is just scraping by and that doesn’t really understand the recruiting culture, we provide them the opportunity to get that club experience.”
The foundation is named in honor of William “Cannonball” Jackman. Jackman played in the Greater Boston Colored League in the 1920’s and ‘30’s and, despite the racial tensions of the era, became a beloved figure in the local baseball scene. Schell became interested in Cannonball’s legacy and decided to help change what he saw as the disintegration of youth sports.
According to Schell, “Kids are getting out paid, not outplayed. We need to honor his legacy and find ways to use baseball and softball as a way to get kids to develop on the field, to develop academically, and to find the right college.”
The Cannonball Foundation and, in particular, the Prospects will not cost families money to participate, but they are not cost-free. The players are expected to become leaders in the community and to donate community service hours to make up for the foundation covering the costs of playing for the summer. Players give their time to the Special Olympics, Hugs for Heroes, and the Miracle League of Boston. As Schell puts it, “We’re changing the culture from pay-to-play to pay it forward-to-play.”
“If you want to be leaders, if you want to talk about character, then you need to put it into practice,” continued Schell. “You need to get out there and help people. So yes we’re going to give you this experience and yes, you’re going to pay us back, but not in dollars and cents. It’s with giving back to those also in need by being leaders in the community.”
The Cannonball Foundation is hoping to expand the Prospects to a full slate of games beginning next summer including showcase tournaments and mid-week games against other club teams. Schell wants to ensure that during expansion the true mission of compassion and giving back is not lost. The foundation is adamant that it is not trying to shrink the pie for other teams in the area, but rather to expand the pie and offer opportunities to those who otherwise would not have the resources to play.