John Rhodes coached high school baseball at Wando and Bishop England, and served as a major league scout for the Cincinnati Reds. But he's best known as the director and coach of the Diamond Devils, a nationally recognized travel baseball program he founded in 1999. His teams have won five national championships and included six first-round draft picks: Drew Meyer, Matt Campbell, Daniel Bard, Matt Wieters, Justin Smoak and Reese Havens. The Post and Courier's Phil Bowman recently caught up with Rhodes:
What was the driving force behind starting a travel team, and how did you come up with the nickname Diamond Devils?
"The desire for the experience and exposure that playing on a national level brings. When we decided to expand our talent base outside of just the Charleston area, we decided to come up with a unique name, at least at that time. We made a list of potential names and finally picked that one. It took about two months to decide."
Critics of travel baseball contend that it has hurt American Legion baseball. What does travel ball offer that legion ball doesn't?
"Numerous things in my opinion, which is why we switched in 1999 after winning the American Legion state championship as Charleston American Legion. Probably the biggest thing is that from an exposure standpoint, scouts can come watch a travel team tournament and see 8 to 12 or more teams play in a day where with the legion setup they would see two teams. And, our teams play against teams from all over the country and not just local-type teams as it is with legion."
Diamond Devils' player fees are higher than other travel teams. Why?
"I am guessing you are comparing us to local-type travel teams and not the national ones that we compete with. As I tell everyone, just be sure you are comparing apples to apples as to what those lesser fees actually entail. The biggest differences are the places we play. For example, this summer we have teams playing at the University of Nebraska, Auburn, Georgia Tech, Georgia and every major college in the state as well as all of our teams are playing in the Perfect Game World Wood Bat Championship in Atlanta and one in the Perfect Game BCS Championship in Fort Myers, Fla. Also our teams all have four coaches, all with high school, college and/or pro experience. I could go on, but the bottom line is you get what you pay for."
Are there too many travel teams?
"To a degree, yes. It waters down the depth of competition and many of these teams come and go all the time because they are done for the wrong reasons. However I do think any player who wants to play travel ball should have a place to play. It is the predominant level of play out there now."
How has the weakened economy affected travel ball in general, and the Diamond Devils specifically?
"In general, again more teams coming and going in the market as the cost of doing business gets them. For us, we have had to reduce the big trips we take. We used to send each of our teams every year, usually flying, to events around the country. We have played in Canada four times, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Boston, and other cities. The last year or so we've only done a couple each year. Also last year, we saw about a 10 percent drop in participants in our tournaments, primarily from the teams from outside the Southeast not playing. But that seems to be bouncing back this year."
One of the first Diamond Devils stars was former Bishop England and USC standout Drew Meyer. He has struggled in the minors. In your opinion, what went wrong in his journey to the majors?
"I think the two biggest problems have been that Drew was plagued by injuries throughout the first few years of his pro career and got behind. And, the administration that drafted him left early in his career, which didn't help him."
The Diamond Devils have been a major talent pipeline for the South Carolina Gamecocks. USC coach Ray Tanner raised some eyebrows last December by offering a scholarship to Wando and Diamond Devils catcher Nick Ciuffo before he even played a varsity game. What did you think about the early offer?
"Well that is a growing trend in college baseball, something I think we will see more and more of. As a rule, I don't think offers should be made before a player's junior year. I think it puts too much pressure on the player from many different angles. Plus, it eliminates the opportunity for a player to look around and see what options they may have. But as I tell parents and players all the time, the right time to commit is when the school you want to go to offers you a chance to play there."
What kind of advice would you give the parents of a child who is just beginning his baseball experience?
"Remember it's a game and is supposed to be fun. I tell our players that now."
What should parents do to guard against burnout?
"I think kids should play different sports at least until they are in middle school and not play two sports or more at a time. Everybody needs some time away."