It’s not quite a field of dreams.
The players don’t magically appear out of the mist between tall pine trees beyond the maroon wall of Claude Passeau Field. No one hears whispers, commanding that “if you build it...” — you know the rest.
Instead, they show up in big trucks — this is South Mississippi after all — and often with only a short text’s warning.
They’re professional ball players who are either coming back to Lucedale or have made George County their go-to spot before heading off to spring training.
The tradition started with GCHS coach Brandon Davis, and he always gets a laugh when he tells how it began.
He’s at his home in Richton when his phone rings. It’s his former Richton High player and new LSU Tiger JaCoby Jones. He says he’s got some guys with him for a weekend trip to workout in South Mississippi.
Sure, Davis says.
“All of a sudden they’re in your house and eating your food. My wife just thinks they’re college kids,” Davis said with a laugh. “I looked at her and said these are guys who are probably going to make a lot of money one day.
“She had no clue. She’s just worried about the food getting eaten.”
Davis was right. Fast-forward six or seven years and Gausman is pitching for the Baltimore Orioles, Jones is one year removed from his Detroit Tigers debut, Ross is playing in the San Francisco Giants farm system, and Ware, who played one year of baseball at LSU before focusing on football, has rushed for more than 1,000 yards, predominantly with the Kansas City Chiefs.
It was the start of a tradition that’s carried over to Davis’ time back at George County High School. Jones is a regular in Lucedale, as are Mason and Walker Robbins, brothers who are now outfield prospects for the Chicago White Sox and St. Louis Cardinals respectively. Chicago Cubs prospect Justin Steele, another GCHS alum, is another one who returns regularly.
Swing of things
It’s an absolutely beautiful Tuesday in Lucedale, and Walker is hunched over in a metal chair that’s probably too small for his 6-foot-3, 215-pound frame.
He’s placing baseballs on a tee for 5-year-old Grant Davis, Brandon’s son, to hit. He needs his reps, too, as he’s “5 going on 15,” as Davis says. A couple minutes later the Robbins brothers are outside under a clear blue sky, talking baseball with Brandon — and Grant — in between smashing fastballs served up by the GCHS coach.
Davis points out a tweak in Mason’s swing.
They pause and Mason mentions Colorado Rockies slugger Nolan Arenado.
It’s the attention to detail and one-on-one time that keeps former players coming back. The GCHS facility doesn’t hurt, either.
“All of us come back here and get everything we need to done. At a high school. Some colleges can’t say that,” Mason says, pointing to the school’s indoor facilities and weight room.
“Coach Davis is a really good coach and it’s always great to come back here, hit with him and just come back to where you were raised playing baseball,” Walker added. “It doesn’t get much better than that.”
No ‘big leaguing’ from the pros
After batting practice is over, the Robbins wheel the cart into the outfield to pick up all the loose balls.
When the Rebels are practicing in-season, the pros don’t get pushy and “big league” the current Rebels. They wait their turn. Walker even umpired from behind the pitcher’s mound during a short intrasquad, catching grief a couple times from the Rebels’ home dugout.
Davis takes pride in scenes like those.
“Toward the end (of practice) they’ll jump in and get some swings. I have to make them usually,” he said. “If we’re taking five cuts, they get five cuts. It’s pretty mutual.”
It’s also pretty cool to see the pros blend with the current Rebels.
“One time last year we had JaCoby in center, Mason in right and Walker in left. We were doing a drill and it wasn’t fair, really,” Davis said. “Balls that would probably fall in high school weren’t falling that day. That was something that was pretty unique that we got to see that day — and let them get a little bit of perspective; gotta hit the ball a little bit harder.”
The high school players are encouraged to mingle with the pros, ask questions, learn, soak in whatever they can.
“They put a lot of work in when they’re here and it shows with where they are now,” said junior Trevor McDonald. “It makes you want to put more work in.”
The Rebels open their 2018 season Feb. 23 against Pascagoula.
The pros don’t have their orders just yet but they’ll begin to report for spring training in the coming weeks.
George County draft picks
Kansas City Royals/60th
San Diego Padres/14th
New York Yankees/28th
New York Yankees/32nd
San Francisco Giants/1st
Chicago White Sox/32nd
New York Mets/20th
Chicago White Sox/25th
St. Louis Cardinals/5th