FULLERTON, Calif. – Bobby Bonilla politely couldn't be interrupted and who could blame him?
The six-time Major League All-Star and 17-year veteran just wanted to sit quietly with his family and watch his 17-year-old son Brandon Bonilla play for the IMG Academy (Bradenton, Fla.) baseball team Wednesday in the prestigious Hard 9 National Classic at Cal State Fullerton.
Between his role on the Major League Baseball Player's Association and Brandon living several states away, this was only the fifth time Bobby had had been able to watch his son play this season.
On Monday, he watched the 6-foot-2, 205-pound left-handed pitcher fire a two-hitter with 10 strikeouts in a 1-0 win over Sunrise Mountain (Ariz.) and on this day Brandon batted cleanup as the designated hitter and delivered an RBI double during a 9-2 semifinal loss to Esperanza.
"I think he did well," Bobby said. "But I'm just his dad and happy for the opportunity to watch him play. I'm just big on players enjoying the game and from what I see Brandon is enjoying it.
"(Baseball) is not a job. I never saw it as a job. I was a very lucky man."
Baseball may not be a job to students at the IMG, but it is indeed the ultimate training ground for kids who ultimately want to be paid to play. Or at least play at the next level.
A growing branch from the renowned IMG Academy that started in 1978 with Nick Bollettieri's Tennis Academy, the Baseball Academy is thriving under the guidance of Director Ken Bolek, head coach Kevin Sharp and five more full-time coaches. Former athletes trained at IMG include such famed country club stars such as Andre Agassi, Greg Norman, Pete Sampras, Nick Faldo and the Williams sisters.
The list of notable baseball alumni is enormous and impressive – including Gary Sheffield, Adam Dunn, Pat Burrell, Ben Sheets, Nomar Garciaparra and Vernon Wells – though not all, few in fact, paid the yearly full-time tuition fee of now more than $61,000.
But to those like Brandon, who can afford it and need it, the training is next to none, they say.
Brandon arrived to the famed 400-acre Florida facility two years ago as an untapped but enormously talented kid who dominated overmatched kids in his Greenwich (Conn.) hometown.
He's now an Arizona State-commit who might be a first-day amateur draft signee in June. Heading into today's final game of the season for IMG – the team competes as a Florida Independent and not under the jurisdiction of the FHSAA – Brandon was 2-2 with 68 strikeouts in 45 innings and a 1.37 ERA.
"Being in Florida and being able to play against great competitors and seeing better hitters and pitchers, and playing every day has been great," Brandon said. "If I wanted to be serious about baseball then this was the step I needed to take."
Clearly Brandon hadn't seen facilities like IMG's in Connecticut. There are three perfectly manicured playing and four practice fields, not to mention indoor batting facilities and pitching simulators. Sharp said Brandon utilized it all and then some. But it was his inner drive that was key.
"Brandon's potential is unlimited," Sharp said. "He's a great kid and great student of the game. The athletic talent has been there but hidden for a long time. But through his own hard work and passion, who knows what might happen in June? And if he goes on to college, watch out."
Asked what it was like to have his dad in the stands watching, Brandon said: "It's just been great just seeing him out here. He's taught me so much being that he was in the league (17) years. I've learned so much from him. He's a great father."
BIG NAMES, SMALL STEPS
After going 10-10-1 last season, 2011 was a big step in the right direction for Sharp's squad on the field.
Following a 9-7 season-ending loss to El Capitan (Lakeside, Calif.) on Thursday, IMG finished 19-6 with first, second, third and fourth-place finishes among its five tournaments. Most of it was against national-caliber competition.
That's very encouraging after the team lost five Division I players off the 2010 squad and two were selected into the draft. With a staggering 23 seniors, IMG used a superb pitching staff (2.94 ERA) and excellent defense – IMG pulled of three double plays Wednesday, including a pair of nifty 6-3 double-outs started by shortstop Dan Kennon – to offset a solid but not spectacular .268 team batting average.
Hutton Moyer, son of Major League pitcher Jamie Moyer, was the team's second baseman and showed a nifty glove on Wednesday.
A third son of a famous big-leaguer, Manny Ramirez Jr., suited up for Wednesday's game but didn't play. A 6-1, 215-pound sophomore, Ramirez Jr. was on the junior varsity team this season and hit .391.
"I'm proud of the way we prepared all season and how far the guys progressed," Sharp said. "They come to us because they definitely take the game of baseball seriously. They want to get better. They want to improve. If they have a draft spot secured, they want to improve on that. If they're already committed to college, they come out ready to go. They know how to go after it and they don't let anyone or any thing get in their way."
Especially first-year seniors like Charles Sheffield – no relation to Gary – who led his high school team Columbus (Ga.) to a state championship in 2010.
The 6-3, 190-pound first baseman and pitcher who has committed to Georgia Tech met Bonilla and outfielder Tanner Pollack at the Area Code Games in Long Beach last summer. Sheffield was drawn to IMG, but Pollack helped convince him to attend despite the fact he had already committed to Georgia Tech and was primed for another big season at Columbus.
"It was real tough because I've played with the boys back home for 10 years or more," Sheffield said. "But if you want to play at the next level and to get better, there's no other place in the world like it.
"When I made my decision to leave (Columbus) people were shocked because we were going to be real special. It was kind of hard on them, but they understood. Sometimes you have to do what's best for you."
Socially, however, it was extremely challenging. Leaving friends and family right before one's senior year is tougher than a Stephen Strasburg curveball.
"The first semester I was going home about every other weekend," Sheffield said.
It was a slow start at the plate too for Sheffield, who rallied sharply to hit .392 with seven doubles, three homers and 17 RBIs.
"Charles started pretty slow but has been a monster the rest of the season," Sharp said.
Said Sheffield: "As far as hitting, I'm light years from where I was when I started."
He hasn't lost touch with his past either. Saturday night he'll fly back to Columbus to attend the school's senior prom.
Asked if he regrets making the move, Sheffield said. "I'd do it again. I've improved, I'm getting looks (from scouts), which is what I desired. I got everything I needed."
Ditto for Brandon Bonilla, who has followed his dad's advice and not looked at baseball as a job.
"I'm going to Arizona State in June, but things might change with the draft," he said. "Right now I'm open to anything and just having fun playing baseball. I look forward to everything."