HAHIRA –– Former Lowndes High baseball player and World Series champion Stephen Drew is bringing his grand vision to fruition.
Drew is launching the South Georgia Gnats Baseball Academy at his own field, Drew Field, in Hahira starting Aug. 2. The Academy will run Aug. 2, Aug. 3 and Aug. 10 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. The Gnats Baseball Academy will be holding tryouts for its 9U, 10U and 11U Fall 2019 and Spring 2020 seasons.
The 36-year-old aims to create his own travel ball team with a heavy dose of influence from his career and upbringing. When Stephen and his brothers J.D. and Tim were young, his father always made time after a hard day of work to practice with them or take them to their games.
As a father of two boys –– 9-year-old Hank and 7-year-old Nolan –– Drew strives to provide a baseball outlet that young local players as well as his sons can play on in place of what used to be reserved for the Boys and Girls Club.
"What I'm looking to do, they call it travel ball," Drew said. "I look back, and I told people I probably won't ever do it. Well, little did I know, the Boys and Girls Club went under with sports and I hate it because that's where I grew up, that's where J.D. grew up, that's where Tim grew up. I wanted to pour back into the Boys Club level. I got the phone call, 'Hey Stephen, we're not going to do sports no more.' And I said, 'Well what do you mean? Is there a way we can get around it? I'll be more than willing to help you guys out in ways that you could turn it around.' They just told me it was too late."
While the South Georgia Gnats will be a travel ball team, Drew sees his new academy as a way to freshen up the culture of travel ball and do more to curb outside perception of the sport.
Drew desires to create a more realistic and rewarding experience for young players that resonates far beyond the baseball diamond and taps into each player's spiritual core.
"I played rec ball –– there's nothing against rec ball, but I've noticed that where the talent is going, everybody wants to play travel ball," Drew said. "I never even knew that. I've only been retired two years and I look back and I'm like, 'Why is everybody doing this travel ball?' They go everywhere –– from Atlanta to Jacksonville, Orlando, Miami, you name it. Kids are flying in. I played for the East Cobb Yankees when I was in 12th grade, where travel ball started for me and I kind of realized what it was like. It wasn't like now, because all of the talent, if you made that team, you were able to do it.
"What I want this to be is more of an academy, a teaching (clinic) –– that's what I want out of this. Yes, it is a travel ball team –– we want to do 9U, 10U, 11U teams. The reason for that is I want to start young because I think giving back to the community at an early age for these kids –– God has taught me in my life, God has taught J.D. and Tim –– first and foremost, I want them to know who Christ is. Life's hard. I want them to know that there's more to life than baseball."
Drew played 12 years in Major League Baseball as a short stop, second baseman and third baseman with the Arizona Diamondbacks, Oakland A's, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees and Washington Nationals. In 2013, Drew captured a World Series title with the Red Sox and hit .253 with 13 home runs that season.
On April 2, 2018, after suffering a severe ankle injury, Drew retired from baseball to relocate to his hometown of Hahira. Since retirement, Drew has dedicated his time to maintenance of his field. Drew Field has been built to MLB specifications, In fact, the only thing missing is a few thousand seats for spectators.
Drew has toyed with the idea of establishing camps and allowing teams to play and practice on the field. Opening the Gnats Baseball Academy tryouts is the latest venture in Drew's plan to give back to the community through baseball.
Drew credits former coach Joe Mederos for inspiring him and helping him develop his plan for the Gnats.
"My biggest thing was make (the field) as nice as I can," Drew said. "It's got a big league grade infield and outfield –– it's like looking at a Triple-A field without the stands. What I mean by a Triple-A field is that it's still like a big league field. There's big league fields that are worse than this that I've played on. It's 400 (feet) to center, 330 down the line and 375.
"How it came about was, me and my wife had a dream of doing something like this years ago when I had the field built. Joe Mederos came as a coach to me out of high school my senior year and we got along very well. We always kept up with each other and after three years at Florida State, he was still with me. And when I made it to minor leagues and the big leagues, he was still out here non-stop throwing. I can't thank him enough for what he's done."
Stephen's older brother, Tim, who has become a personal trainer since his retirement in 2008, will specialize in caring for players to ensure they avoid injury. The brothers will offer pitching regimens and proper throwing programs for players to throw more efficiently.
"I want to take care of these kids," Drew said. "I'm going to have pitching regimens –– my brother Tim is a personal trainer now, I'm gonna have him doing throwing programs. Tim's told me, at 11, 12 years old, he sees more Tommy John surgeries now than when we played because of travel ball."
Another goal Drew wants to accomplish with the Gnats Baseball Academy, in addition to providing a top-notch facility for players, is creating a healthy environment for kids to learn about the game and life in general.
Unabashed about his Christian faith, Drew hopes to lead young players in a walk of faith that sets them up for success later in life as adults. Drew thinks back to the days of Valdosta Wildcat football, when the school was winning championships in bunches, and envisions establishing a team built on its selfless nature and sacrifice.
"First and foremost, it's about Jesus," Drew said. "We're not going to be out here using profanity. We're going to be hard on the kids. What we're going to do is tough love –– you want to build the love up with these kids and let them know, you're gonna lose. That's life. We're not always going to win. You're not always handed things. You've got to work hard for what you get and take pride in that. That's what Jesus tells us to do.
"If we can do that and start at an early age, I think we can change the community's aspect on sports and how it's run and hopefully reach this community to get it back knitted the way it used to be. You look at Valdosta High School when they were national champions –– they were knitted. It wasn't all about one player, my son, this and that. It's about the team."
Drew embraces the inevitable hurdles that come with the Gnats Baseball Academy, but relishes the opportunity to give back.
Sitting on the wooden bench inside one of his brick dugouts near the left field line, Drew stares out into what the fruits of his 12 years of Major League service has created and expresses his hope that he can be a facilitator for change in youth baseball in South Georgia.
"It takes little steps –– there's going to be times when it's frustrating, I'm not gonna lie," Drew said of his new venture. "There's going to be times when it's great. I'll look back and it's amazing. I'm just hoping that I can be a positive influence in this town. I have the facility to do what I can do now and I want to give back. Whether my team's are the greatest or not, what I want to build is good team chemistry that players that have the desire like I did to get there. That's what I want."
The cost of the tryout is $25 and a private tryout can be arranged prior to Aug. 2 for players unable to attend. For more information about the South Georgia Gnats Baseball Academy, visit gnatsbaseball.com or contact Stephen Drew at firstname.lastname@example.org.