Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Boomer Collins: From Org Guy to Cricket Star?

Collins spent ten days working with Julien Fountain in a batting cage in downtown Waxahachie before hopping the pond to chase his newest dream.
Travis Rose
Great Rose (TX) Reporter
Photo

   The premise is a Hollywood (or Bollywood?) scriptwriter's dream:  young ballplayer, the quintessential All-American kid, washes out as a pro baseball player after a storied high school and college career.  As his career is waning, he is befriended by a scout for another sport in a land far away, and convinces him to give the wicket sport a try.  Player goes off to India, where he undergoes a crash course in the game, and ends up becoming a star in one of the most popular sports in the world.
    Kind of like Million Dollar Arm in reverse.

   For former Blue Jays prospect Boomer Collins, that dream may be on the way to being a reality.  Undrafted after finishing his collegiate career at Dallas Baptist, the native of Mt Pleasant, TX, was signed as a free agent in June, 2013, and sent to the Gulf Coast League.  Collins was originally meant to serve as an organization guy, a player to fill out a minor league roster, but a .305/.391/.439 season and a berth on the GCL All-Star roster gave him a chance to see what he could do at a higher level. Collins spent 2014 with Vancouver, and was given a shot at full-season ball for 2015.  He hit .285/.336/.446 at Lansing, but struggled with Dunedin, and at 26, the Blue Jays felt that he had hit his ceiling, and gave him his release in November.  As an undrafted free agent, Collins' chances of moving up in the organization were slim, unless he had a Kevin Pillar-like ascendancy.  Collins is a five-tool player - it's just that none of his tools were at an elite level, in the eyes of MLB.

  For a minor league ballplayer in Collins' situation, the options were few:  hope to catch on with another organization, maybe an independent league team, or perhaps go back to school.  The dream isn't necessarily dying, but it's on life support.  Getting the dreaded day job looms bigger on the horizon every day.

  For Collins, however, there was a glimmer of hope, one that began when he crossed paths with a former cricket and baseball player named Julien Fountain.

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   In the early years of this century, the sport of Cricket was at something of a crossroads.  When most North Americans think of the sport, they think of six-day test matches played at a leisurely pace - something very much at odds with the North American lifestyle.  It turns out that the newest generation of fans in England, the birthplace of the sport, were beginning to feel that way too.

   When a sponsorship deal ended for a popular one-day competition ended in 2002, the governing body of English Cricket decided to try a new version of the sport - one that was faster paced, and much shorter in duration - to try to attract younger fans.  Twenty20 Cricket was born, featuring a single innings, and a maximum of 20 overs (an over is a succession of six balls delivered from one of the pitch).  Games were reduced from days to just under 3 hours, and the experiment proved to be wildly successful.

   The T20 format quickly spread across the world, and the first world championship tournament was held in 2007.  Because T20 is a faster-paced, more explosive and less staid version of the sport, the need for an athlete who had those skills quickly developed.  The T20 player must be faster, stronger, and fitter than the regular Cricketer.  Bowlers have had to develop more deception in their deliveries to upset the timing of the higher-skilled batsmen.  A Cricket blogger observed:

Fielding has also improved dramatically. Fielders are doing things that at one time seemed near impossible; throwing their bodies around and cutting off balls that seemed destined for the boundaries. We see fielders demonstrating incredible agility to pull off amazing catches and hitting the stumps with throws from the outfield more frequently than ever before
   The effect on regular Cricket has been profound, too, as the scoring at many Test matches has reduced them to 3 or 4 days.  Purists might scoff at the new kid on the block, but T20 was clearly here to stay.

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   Fountain grew up in Shoreham-by-Sea, on the English Channel, and like most English boys, began playing Cricket from an early age.  He was described as a "medium pace all rounder,' but switched to wicket-keeper because of his defensive skills.  Kind of like a finesse pitcher who gets converted to Catcher.  At 15, he was good enough as a youth player to play for the Somerset U19 team.

   Looking for a new challenge, Fountain was mesmerized as a teenager by the excellent Twins-Cardinals 1987 World Series:
I was lucky enough to watch that series LIVE on TV in the UK. I found I was staying up into the early hours and was fascinated at the similarities with cricket. I was sure that the two games had similar skill sets, so I would be able to play baseball. That proved to be correct. However I always felt that guys coming the other way would probably find it easier ! 

 He quickly switched to the diamond game, and moved up the British baseball development ladder quickly, pitching for his country at numerous international competitions.  Fountain even had tryouts with the Mets, Royals, and Red Sox, before giving up the game to attend university in London.  After graduation, Fountain returned to his hometown, and soon founding himself coaching youth Cricketers.  He was deluged with questions about how baseball skills could transfer to Cricket, and his many baseball-based fielding drills won him considerable praise.
   Fountain eventually started to work with national team players, and soon came into demand as a fielding specialist and T20 coach in England and abroad, joining the coaching staffs of teams from the West Indies, Bangladesh, and Pakistan, as well as helping to establish high performance centres in Ireland, Canada, Bermuda, and Trinidad.  Well known as an innovator and progressive thinker, Fountain created Switch Hit 20, a program designed to assist pro baseball players with their transition to cricket.

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   Collins grew up in Waxahachie, TX, a town of 30 000 just south of the Dallas suburbs.  Football is close to a religion in that part of America, and the teenaged Boomer was the star quarterback of the local high school football team, and a center fielder on its state runner-up baseball team.  His skills on the diamond landed him a scholarship at the University of Nebraska.

   It was with the Cornhuskers that Collins came face-to-face with adversity for the first time in his athletic career.  He played sparingly in his first two seasons with the team, and transferred to Dallas Baptist before his junior year.  Collins had to sit out a year due to the transfer, but the move proved to be a wise one, as he put up two of the best offensive seasons in school history.  It wasn't enough to draw huge attention from MLB scouts, and he went undrafted following his senior year in 2013.  The Blue Jays offered him a contract (without a bonus), and Collins eagerly signed and was shipped off to the sweltering heat of the Gulf Coast League to start his MLB career.  

  The 24-year-old Collins was a dominant player in a league filled mostly with 19-year-old high school graduates, and 17-year-old international players getting their first taste of stateside playing experience.  He was named a GCL All-Star, but that did not accelerate his timetable.  Playing against higher calibre and more experienced competition in the Northwest League the following year with Vancouver, Collins struggled at the plate.  Sent to Lansing in April for his first year of full-season ball,  Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler became an instant fan:
He's affable, engaging, and -- considering the multitude of offseason jobs he's worked while pursuing his passion for athletics -- uncommonly determined. I admire his energy and perseverance.
He split his season between Lansing and High A Dunedin, and posted a decent .261/.304/.395 line, but at 26, his time had run out, and the Blue Jays released him in early November.  Collins knew his chances of making it to the big time were slim, however, and he had already been exploring his options for almost a year prior to his release.  Dating back to last January, he and Fountain had been discussing a possible switch from cricket to baseball - Collins was concerned that the Blue Jays might not look favourably upon this, so he did his best to keep the talks secret.  According to Fountain, after the Blue Jays let him go, he quickly and fully committed himself to SH20:

His release by the Blue Jays has spurred him on even further toward pursuing cricket as a possible career. He has made incredible progress in the last 3 weeks since picking up a cricket bat. He has coped wit some really extreme changes in tactics and technique, whilst maintaining his "Baseball Power & Athleticism"
 Fountain's project may seem like a bit of a pipe dream, but for a lot of Minor Leaguers, many of whom have played for wages less than that of an American fast-food worker , this may seem like a golden opportunity.

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   What does the future hold for Collins and Fountain's SH20 Project?   That's hard to say.  After several training sessions in Collins' hometown, Fountain invited him to India, where he could further his cricket education, and get exposure to scouts.  Fountain, as you might expect, is an unabashed fan of both T20, and the conversion of MLB players (putting up $10 000 USD of his own money to start it, and trying to secure investors for more growth):

(T20 is) action packed, high paced, long balls, extreme bare handed catching & fielding. Imagine NFL, NHL, NBA, MLB  all combined into one sport . . . . thats T20. Baseball appears quite boring and slow compared to T20.

   Looking to expand, the International Cricket Council hopes to hold a T20 World Cup in America in the next decade, on the heels of a successful three-match exhibition series in Houston and New York, drawing 80 000 fans.  The US market is estimated to have about 10.5 million fans.  Cricket Australia is reportedly interested in bringing test matches to America as well.  

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   5-tool, MLB players, according to Fountain, are a perfect fit for T20, where patience and strategy take a backseat to swing-from-the-heels batting, and diving catches.  Every over in T20 is precious. Because of the premium placed on skills on both sides of the ball, one-dimensional players need not apply.  He thinks this is the perfect forum for players who may not have been considered MLB prospects to showcase their skills:

I have always maintained that baseball players could be great cricket players, but the formats of cricket did not suit a baseball players mentality. However with the advent of T20, a much shorter format of cricket, which focuses on power and athleticism, there was now an avenue into the game that would suit baseball players. T20 cricket has very short seasons. each season is between 3 - 8 weeks. This means players can hop from country to country, playing in multiple competitions earning really good salaries. 


   Collins, for his part, acknowledges the learning curve ahead of him:  " (The) toughest part has to be changing from the ball coming in the air to bouncing and balls being able to hit you and you still have to swing." Video from a Texas training session shows he's starting to get the hang of it:



   
Collins, for his part, is willing to wait and see what the future holds. He has been signed up for a draft list for a T20 tournament in the Pakistan Super League, but Fountain told Collins' hometown paper that he may have to come back to the U.S. to play amateur cricket to further his training. Collins has already been signed to an endorsement deal with the Cricket Store Online. He admits that he is excited about the opportunity, but doesn't know what his future path will be. Unless he gets picked up by a team in India or Pakistan, he likely will be heading home before Christmas to continue his training in Texas.

Update:  

December 10th, 2015.

Boomer Collins, Minor League baseball player trying to convert to cricket, is on the PSL "silver" list. https://t.co/EG3dETS6zj
  According to Collins, the gold, silver, and bronze brackets are salary tiers - meaning, presumably, that he's a mid-level prospect.  Not bad for someone who just took up the game.

   I also spoke to a good source, David Polkinghorne of the Canberra Times, what he thought about the conversion of baseball players to cricket:
  Biggest problems would be the ball bounces before it gets to the batsman, shots range the full 360 degrees and not just the 90 or whatever it is in baseball, and you don't have a glove in the field. But they would have the obvious hand eye coordination required and should be good throws. I think the transition might be easier from baseball to cricket. But back before cricket became a year round sport lots of top aussie cricketers played baseball in the winter - Ian Chappell, Alan border and John Dyson to name a few - so the skill sets obviously complement each other.




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