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A look at year-round athletes: Baseball

BRADENTON — IMG Academy has baseball games on its diamonds four days a week.

Stop by, and you’ll hear the boy from Brooklyn marvel at the boy from Arkansas’ speed. You’ll see the barrel of a wood bat splinter off and bounce in front of home plate. You’ll see guys lose themselves in the hitting cages located behind the bleachers.

You’ll see baseball. Plenty of it.

What you won’t see, however, is The IMG Wood Bat League in all its glory.

Heck, you won’t even see it in half its glory.

Do the math.

“It’s 70 percent training and 30 percent games,” says Jason Elias, IMG’s baseball operations coordinator, the league’s commissioner and a team coach.

Make no mistake — the games are serious business. Teams play seven-inning contests Monday, Tuesday and Thursday, and nine-inning affairs every Saturday.

Third-base coaches flash signs. Strikeouts are capped by players emphatically pounding their bats in the dirt. Infielders dive for ground balls.

The rosters of the league’s eight teams are taped to one billboard erected between the two fields.

On another billboard are the standings, stats and a pitcher and player of the week. The 30-game schedule was capped by a week of playoffs, with the championship game played Sunday.

But there’s more to this league than the games its people play.

Those who take part hone their skills six days a week, including non-game days, when players work on nothing but defense.

The IMG Academy Athletic & Personal Development programs— Athletic & Personal Development program — allows players to utilize individualized strength and speed plans. They attend two-hour lectures on how to better their mental approach. They learn proper nutrition.

They work with Ken Boleck, IMG’s director of baseball, and the RightView Pro system, a video program that allows each hitter to compare his swing to a major leaguer, thereby pinpointing what he needs to do better.

“The ultimate goal,” Elias said, “is we want to take a high school player, and take their potential ceiling, and show them how they can get better day in and day out.”

This year’s program has drawn 115 kids from across the country. On a recent day at the ballfields, located off Nick Bollettieri Boulevard, parents from Mississippi were chatting with a player from Illinois who was working the scoreboard.The cost for the seven-week program, boarding included, is $7,195. Players are housed on IMG property and fed three meals a day. They get a break on Sunday, when IMG sponsors activities such as trips to area theme parks.

“It gets them away for the day,” Elias said.

The league also is a local draw. Players from Southeast, Out-of-Door Academy, Cardinal Mooney and Lakewood Ranch can be spotted on any of the teams. Southeast coach Phil Olsen pilots the Sea Dogs, while former Lakewood Ranch coach Dave Moates fittingly coaches the Mustangs.

Included in that lot is Kyle Matis, a Bradenton resident who will be a junior at Out-of-Door Academy next year.

“It’s just baseball all the time, which is good,” said Matis, who’s a Sea Dog this summer. “We get about six hours in (a day), just between workouts and practices and games.”

Matis caught a glimpse of the IMG way last summer, when his team from ODA played teams from IMG’s baseball academy.

“They just killed us all summer,” Matis said. “I was like, ‘I’ve got to get over there.’”

Thus far, he has no complaints. Neither does his dad, Dan, who has been taking Kyle to camps since they were living in New York.

“It’s excellent,” Dan Matis said. “Just to be able to play here this much, and the way they do it. ... It’s so much more.

“You meet with a lot of people who really know what they’re doing.”

Then there are the wooden bats, a foreign object to guys who are used to swinging aluminum.

“It makes it more challenging,” Elias said, “and refines the hitters.”

The league began in 2006 with two teams, before mushrooming into what it is now. The hope, Elias said, is to grow to as many 12 next year.

“We hope to continue to grow,” Elias said. “It’s very unique. No one else in the country is doing it.”

Of course, the league is only for baseball aficionados who don’t mind being immersed in the game for six days a week.

“It’s definitely not a program for every kid,” Dan Matis said. “You have to really like it and want it.”

Kyle, for one, does — even if the IMG Wood Bat League is about more than just playing the games.

“This one definitely takes everything to the next level,” he said. “The mental side of baseball — they definitely teach it here.”

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