Relevance – The Ruffnecks Program

The Ruffnecks program begins its 15th season in 2018.  That is a long time for youth baseball organizations where “Daddy-Ball” teams come and go, and the landscape for competition ebbs and flows.  Indeed other organizations throughout the United States and in our New England Region have longer histories, and are equally committed.  The Ruffnecks have not cornered the market on instruction or the development of baseball players.  We do not get all things right.  The challenge is to maintain relevance in a world where player and parent expectations are expanding more rapidly than the ability to deliver outcomes.  We believe that relevance sits squarely in the old fashioned axiom that ball players play ball.  And baseball is a TEAM game.

The purest moments in the Ruffnecks program are on display during the workouts of our newest 13U class.  It is there that all the unbridled hope, passion, and understanding begins anew.  We do not attract, nor do we select, the most “finished” 13 year olds.  We do our best to build a team and a class of like-minded friends and ball players.

Information Overload

Social media, websites, and easy access to information pose challenges to the most discerning player and his family.  Daily, we are bombarded with appeals to subscribe to recruiting agencies, pitching and hitting links, prospect camps, showcases, along with product pitches, evaluation tools, and more.  These same appeals target the aspiring athlete and their families. They also target vulnerabilities.  It is not unique to baseball, but since we are about baseball, these are our concerns.

Several parents (many with players who have finished the Ruffnecks program) have shared their experiences surfing websites, player rankings, team rankings, and more.  Such activities provide an interesting and entertaining use of one’s downtime.  It can also confound the brain.  Even parents who have played the game at high levels (in another era) find the amount of information overwhelming.  So how do we deal with it?

First, it is important to understand that this trend is not going away.  The clutter will likely only get worse.   The challenge to wade through the clutter will become more difficult.  So there is no need to ignore it.  But there is a need to manage it.  And there is a need to filter the noise, noise, noise.  In the end, it is rare that a showcase or a recruiting agency delivers a desired outcome.  The player must play the game.  The Ruffnecks deliver the opportunity for players to be seen playing the game… at a high level.

The Noise

Noise makes it difficult to concentrate.  It stands to reason that noise accompanying idle chatter among parents, players, and evaluators, also makes it difficult to sort out reasonable expectations.

We always ask the following question of our players, even at the youngest age: “What are your goals and aspirations as a baseball player and student?”  The most common answer is, “I want to play Division I Baseball and I want to go to a school down South.”  Whew!

So when the attention begins to increase around our program, usually at 15U, the noise gets troubling when some Division I schools begin noticing and expressing interest in some players but not others.  It is human nature to wonder “Why him and not my son?”  But such energy is misdirected.  The energy is better focused on how each player can find his own path to the appropriate place to play at the next level.

Our mea culpa is simple.  The Ruffnecks program is NOT an exclusive club comprised of Division I prospects!  We do not wave that banner, and we have great pride in the accomplishments of many graduates who have matriculated to excellent Division III and mid-level Division I schools of high academic focus.  To be sure, the Ruffnecks have had many wonderful Division I players (and draft picks), but those successes are not quantifiable, and we do not engage in what many programs do, which is to stake a claim of development to ANY player who has ever pulled on the uniform!  And by the way… most of our players end up playing somewhere north of the Mason-Dixon line!

Instead, we strive each year to enhance our efforts to manage expectations while being advocates for our players.  And our reputation among college recruiters continues to rise with trust and integrity.  Our players play hard.  They play in the context of team-baseball.  They are seen and evaluated in that context.  And the most successful ones advocate for themselves.

Differentiation & Self Advocacy

So fifteen years into this experiment, we are still experimenting, while at the same time sticking to some tried and true fundamental principles.  First among those principles is that no one person, player, coach, is greater than the TEAM.  This message is underscored repeatedly.  At our Ruffnecks banquet in November, three speakers (none of whom had communicated with any others) spoke of the same values of teamwork and self-advocacy.  Mr. Stu Porter spoke at length with a marvelous illustration of self-advocacy and perseverance.  Dave Dombrowski spoke of team values and understanding.  While NY Yankees scout Matt Hyde also addressed why scouts and recruiters like watching the Ruffnecks… “Because this program plays team baseball.”

The second important principle is cultivating self-advocacy.  We encourage players to speak for themselves and to manage the journey for themselves.  This, of course, includes the greatest of parental support… trust… Trust in the player and trust in the process.  But the successful journey is conducted primarily by the player who possesses clear speaking skills, ownership of his academic record, and a willingness to face his own strengths and weaknesses.  Players know better than anyone else.  They know the pecking order on the field, and they understand the vagaries of “fairness” inherent in the game of baseball.

To be certain, we have players who leave the program for a variety of reasons.  Sometimes we simply cannot deliver the goods.  But what continues to differentiate the Ruffnecks is a fierce adherence to playing for each other, challenging ourselves against noble competition and having the players conduct the journey.