This is the latest installment of our spotlight on some top-caliber and high-character club baseball organizations that have helped Pathway Baseball establish a foothold in tournament offerings at 15u-18u.
Next up, we have Luis Lopez of the New York Nighthawks. The program (which recently added softball) has a 14u feeder squad, a dedicated showcase team that puts sophomores and juniors in front of scouts, and then an 18u team that digs into the important work of getting signed players ready for the college campus.
Lopez grew up in Brooklyn, nearly topping Manny Ramirez one year for player of the year honors in the state. He walked on to Coastal Carolina and ended up in the school and conference hall of fame.
Q: You played professionally for a long time; how did you handle the fact most of it was in the minors?
A: I played independent ball first out of college, then caught on with extended spring training with Toronto (winning four minor league MVP awards in the organization). I was a role player, and this is another thing I explain to my players. You have to understand and accept your role, because not everyone will be a starter, be a position player. It’s a hard conversation, but you have to do what’s best for the team. I knew I’d be that type of player. I can’t complain about the career I had – won eight MVPs in the minors, 10 All-Star games, 2,500 hits, played Japan and Mexico, finished up with 20 years as a pro.
Q: When it was time for your next act, what interested you?
A: I wanted to help on the high school side. I didn’t like what was going on and what our kids were being taught, and what the parents were being sold on … a lot of smoke. I wanted to be straight and honest, because there weren’t that many people who were honest with me in my career. I always said, if I have an organization, I want to be straight up.
I noticed (in the Atlantic League late in my career, independent ball) the league was getting younger. Kids were getting released and playing independent at 24, 25, whereas I made it to the big league at 27. Are these guys being taught in the minor leagues? Turns out they weren’t. The easy stuff … getting a runner over, all the situational stuff, having an approach, they didn’t understand that lingo, and I thought, wait up, something is going on.
Q: What were the priorities and visions for the Nighthawks?
A: I look at it that’s it’s a combination of old school and new school. The way the Nighthawks wanted to go, was to stay in the middle, combine them both. I was taught fundamentally sound, and it looked like a lot of these kids were not. The high school kids don’t really even watch baseball, and another thing I wanted to start with the Nighthawks was doing classroom work, and talk about baseball and take notes.
The other step was concentrating on school, on your grades. Kids get sold on athletic scholarships, but in all reality, there’s 11.7 scholarships for D-I kids to spread around 35 guys on a team. Academic money, we can get $25,000 if your grades are 90 or above. So why not go ahead and get that money, and then pad that athletic money on top of that? That’s what the Nighthawks are basically focused on. And this pay to play stuff … it’s difficult for a lot of kids to afford this. We started this as a non-profit foundation, because we wanted to be a mixture of kids. We have it from kids who are very well off, to ones that are very poor. That’s the way the world is, we try to explain what life is about.
We also figured out our plan for the number of tournaments – too many tournaments, it’s wasting a kid’s chance to develop. There’s no time to make corrections if you play bad in a tournament and the next week you jump right into another one.
After high school season, we take a month, five weeks, of all practicing, getting prepared for summer. The showcase team gets three showcases and five tournaments; the young guys get four tournaments kind of spread out, and the older guys play six tournaments. That group, we make sure they are ready when they show up on campus. We also listen to what college coaches might want from them, playing (different positions), so they don’t have to wait to see what that’s like.
Q: What’s your impression of the Pathway Baseball experience?
A: Pathway’s events and Triple Crown, you’ve done a great job. Every year it gets better and better. Gino is a great guy, understands his stuff. What I like is he asks questions to the coaches, what can we do to make this better? That’s how this should be, working together, putting egos aside, and talk about the best way to put these kids in the right exposure, in front of the right people.