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Mark Grudzielanek on Why More Younger Players Might Be Ready to Go Pro

Almost all the classical thinking suggests if you’re not drafted in the first 10 rounds in June, and do not have an aversion to academics, that you continue your baseball career in college.

Thereby, the logic continues, you derive the dual benefits of continued competitive play without the homesickness, while building up academic chits that can be applied to a post-baseball career.

Mark Grudzielanek adheres to this traditional thinking for many young players. But the newly-hired manager of the Triple-A Charlotte Knights, the White Sox’s top minor-league affiliate, throws up a caution flag for the college/pros decision, given changes in the game.

“It depends on the round selected you are selected,” Grudzielanek said. “Parents are (usually) more about school. Personally, I would lean toward going to school. If you’re picked in a top-five round, go out and play (pro ball). If not, go get an education.

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“But the game has changed. Young kids are coming in (to pro ball) in the international game. The older you are, it might be harder to get to where you want to be. Coming out of college as a 21- or 22-year-old and signing, you better be fundamentally ready to make some noise. A college player could come in behind the players who have started in the organization at 17.”

Grudzielanek, who has aspirations of managing in the majors, handled both raw teenagers and supposedly more polished college kids in his first year of pro managing. He ran the low-A Kane County Cougars, 40 miles west of Chicago, in its first year of affiliation with the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2015. Teenagers fresh from shorter-season rookie-level competition and some collegians were mixed together.

Homesickness always had been a big factor for younger players, bypassing college and traveling in their first or second year away from home in the lower minors. Decades ago, they would live in questionable apartments, bunking with two or three other teammates, and not eating well on their modest salaries.

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But as the minors expanded and gained popularity in the 1990s, many teams set up “host-family” programs, where players would stay in the homes of fans in the community. They’d have comfortable quarters and be fed several squares per day. The Cougars were one of the pace-setters in the host-family concept.

“The host families improve the situation,” Grudzielanek said. “No question it’s a huge advantage for all kids. It definitely takes a weight off them. They don’t have to worry about their living conditions, paying for it, and they can concentrate on playing the game. Organizations do more for kids now.”

Grudzielanek’s own experience was two years of maturity in college.

“I was drafted late out of high school, so I went to college and then came back and signed,” he said.

The Mets selected him in the 17th round out of Hanks High School in El Paso, Texas, in 1989. Grudzielanek then attended Trinidad State Junior College in Colorado. The old Montreal Expos picked him in the 11th round in 1991, and he signed.

The extra time in college obviously helped. He made his big-league debut at 24 in 1995. For the next 13 seasons, Grudzielanek was a big-league regular at shortstop, then second base for the Expos, Dodgers, Cubs, Cardinals and Royals. A classic spray-hitting middle infielder, he never had a poor season, with just one campaign as a regular under .271. He amassed five .300-plus seasons, finishing with 2,040 hits and a .289 lifetime average.

And if a player, whether a teen or a 22-year-old, plays for Grudzielanek, he’ll by osmosis have access to some of the best minds in the game. Grudzielanek both played and worked for Hall of Famer Tony La Russa. Some of his other managers were Felipe Alou, Davey Johnson, and Dusty Baker.

From GameChanger and George Castle. Photos courtesy of the Kane County Cougars.

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