It’s been five years since coach Henry “Buddy” Drakeford filled out his last lineup card. Five years since he spent his summers leading a caravan of baseball players from southwest Atlanta up, down and all-around the southeast from tournament to tournament. It’s been five years, and the letters on the back of his jersey that he wears as he wraps up his yard work still reads “Coach.”
In his 14 years, five as a head coach, Drakeford and his teams transitioned from a local recreational baseball team to an ultra-competitive travel club. Not only did the game change, but Drakeford entered his players, their parents and himself into a world of competitive youth sports that requires more than just one practice a week and a couple Ziploc bags with orange slices. It was no longer just about having fun. Drakeford recognized he had a special group and the only way to extract their potential was to challenge them.
Q: What advice would you give to parents about committing to travel ball?
I would say that the landscape is ever-changing and with baseball, it’s becoming more like basketball where the travel ball is like AAU. Travel baseball has totally supplanted high school baseball. When the scouts show up at a high school baseball game it’s because they found out about or heard about this player somewhere along the travel circuit. Whether it was a showcase or something like Perfect Game, it was through that circuit. When the scouts shows up it’s because of their exploits elsewhere, not necessarily at the local high school. I would also advise that you find a good team and a good coach that’s not only interested in winning. You’ve got to find a coach that wants to win, but more importantly teaches the fundamentals so the winning comes the right way. There are some coaches out there that will accumulate those kids that are further developed than the rest. They accumulate all those kids and are able to get all the victories. But are they really teaching the kids? Are the kids getting better? There is a difference. Find a good park. Find a good program and to the best of your ability find a team with a good coach where they are teaching fundamentals. The rest will pretty much take care of itself.
Q:Approximately how many tournaments did you play in per summer?
When we were recreational up until we were 12 years old, I would schedule games outside of the park schedule by getting into a couple of tournaments. It picked up at age 10 when we started playing USSSA. At 11 we went to a heavier USSSA schedule, but still maintained the park schedule. . At 12 years old we probably played more than 60 games or so. The key point was when they were 13-15 years old we were purely a travel team and played 60-70 games and we had no park schedule. I just scheduled tournaments. I looked at the calendar before the season and I would pre-load all the tournaments and send it to the parents so they would know each and every weekend where we would be, who we would be playing and what our off weeks would be. That schedule would run from February and it would end probably third week of July with a couple of season ending trips. In all, you’re looking at probably in excess of 10-14 tournaments a year. And if you go deep in the tournaments, you can see how the games will add up.
Q: How much did it cost?
I can only imagine what it is now. We were trying our best to keep it low, and were paying at least $1,500 per player (per summer) just to fund all the tournaments. That was our budget. We were more of a family team, but it’s much more now I would imagine for certain organizations. I’m sure tournament costs have increased, but back then we could get in a tournament for $325. I worked it backwards. I would see how many tournaments are we going to play in this year. Some were $350 and some were $400. At the younger ages it’s cheaper. You’re going to do x-number of those tournaments and I would add all of that up and state this is our need. Then we need this amount for baseballs, equipment and all of that. Then you divide it by how many people you have. We had 13-14 players and that pretty much told you what you needed from each family.
Q: What are the benefits of participating in travel ball?
The whole goal was to keep the team in the fire and by that we meant that we wanted to keep them playing against the best competition we could find. A lot of times you learn more from losing than you do from winning. So going through the park and being 18-1 was great, but are you really progressing as a team? Are you getting better fundamentally? It takes playing against really good competition for you to fine tune and really hone your skills. The players playing in those tight games, tough games, pressure games, after a while they developed that muscle memory to where they’re used to playing in those type of situations. They become more comfortable in those situations and perform better.
Q: What sacrifices are required when participating in travel sports?
It’s a huge sacrifice. It’s a sacrifice of time. Certainly a sacrifice of money. What I would do at the first meeting of each year, I would state what type of team we were. I would say ‘We are the Sandtown Blue Jays and our goal is to be pretty good. We are going to practice more than most teams and we are going to play more games than most teams.’ We wanted [them] to know that up front so they could be sure that this was the type of team they wanted to be on… it may not be the team for them.
From the kids standpoint, it’s a sacrifice for them because I’m sure they missed countless birthday parties for friends, cousins, someone visiting in town, picnics… So there’s a sacrifice from the kids standpoint as well. They weren’t really able to do all the things that kids like to do. We would say if your friend is in town or cousin is in town then bring them to the game, but you’re expected to be at practice. From the parents standpoint it’s a sacrifice financially especially when we started traveling as we got older, so there is a financial commitment as well as time. For the coaches and assistant coaches there is a sacrifice. There is a commitment, but it seems like in this life if something is free then it’s not really worth anything. So there’s got to be a cost associated with it.
Q: How does it make you feel to see your former players advance to collegiate ball?
Hugely proud. Not just me, my assistants and all the coaches that helped should be equally proud. I’m making a concerted effort to make the rounds and see my players. I’ve got a few that are juniors and the bulk are sophomores in college and in a few years they’ll be out. I make it a point to get out and see all of them. I think in total we’ve got seven players from a combined Sandtown Blue Jays/ Dodger(team changed names) baseball squad that are playing college baseball. We’ve got one Blue Jay that we can count that was with us for three years that is playing pro ball (McClure). And we’ve got two running track in college. One just became the men’s 200m national champion, Christian Coleman. We’ve got another two that are playing college football. Out of that squad of about 13/14 kids, you’re looking at 10 of those are still playing in college or pro. They’re still chasing their dreams.
Coach Drakeford passed along his team to Dugout Club baseball. He recognized that his core unit had a higher ceiling and he relinquished his head coaching duties so that his boys could reach their potential. His former players include:
Terry McClure, an eighth round selection in the 2013 MLB draft.
Christian Coleman, the 2015 Indoor Track and Field SEC Men’s Freshman Runner of the Year and a first team All-American in the men’s 60-meter dash at the University of Tennessee.
He has eight other former players who went on to college to compete at the collegiate level in baseball and other sports.