By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, April 29, 2009
CATONSVILLE, Md. -- It doesn't take long for Mike Flacco to distinguish himself from the rest of the players on the baseball field at the Community College of Baltimore County at Catonsville. He is a head taller than most of his teammates, and as the Cardinals took batting practice one recent sunny afternoon, Flacco is the only one whose swings elicit gasps.
"Oh . . . my . . . God," one player says near the batting cage as Flacco rips a series of line drives and long fly balls.
An assistant coach asks, only half-jokingly, not to hit his car in the parking lot beyond the left field fence -- and yes, the younger brother of Baltimore Ravens starting quarterback Joe Flacco has sent a few home runs off the asphalt. Another teammate deadpans, "He hasn't hit the scoreboard yet."
The professional scouts who arrive a bit later in time for first pitch? They, too, are well aware of the 6-foot-4 Flacco and the third baseman's power-hitting ability. About a half dozen show up for most of Catonsville's games.
"You go watch him hit and you're going to walk away and say, 'Who is this guy?' " said one professional scout, whose team is interested in Flacco as the Major League Baseball first-year player draft approaches in early June.
But even after learning the identity of No. 6 and his successful older brother, the scouts have more questions: How can a 22-year-old college freshman suddenly pop up on the scene as a legitimate prospect, and what in the world has he been doing since he graduated from high school?
"I've been doing this for a while and I haven't run into a situation like this one," said another scout, speaking on the condition of anonymity because area scouts generally are not authorized to speak publicly about prospects. "It's all new to me. He's an international man of mystery or something."
The answer, in short: Once a 5-6, 130-pound high school sophomore, Flacco sprouted late, growing more than eight inches in a year. He went to an elite prep school in New Jersey for the 2005-06 school year hoping to catch the eyes of college recruiters, but while playing football he suffered a stress fracture in his back that he did not let heal until after the school year. After letting his back heal during the 2006-07 school year, he spurned a junior college offer to play football because the school did not have a roster spot on the baseball team for him.
Flacco spent the first few months of 2008 at a baseball academy in Florida, living in a hotel and working out with former major leaguer Julio Franco and some teenagers from the Dominican Republic. That wasn't inexpensive, his father Steve said, but the opportunity to play every day in warm weather was worth it. Flacco then returned to the family's home in southern New Jersey; Joe Flacco needed someone to run pass routes as he prepared for the 2008 NFL draft.
Having been out of organized athletics for the 2006-07 and 2007-08 school years, Flacco wound up at Catonsville upon the recommendation of Tim Bishop, the former strength and conditioning coach of the Baltimore Orioles. Bishop, who has a private training business, had worked with Flacco to strengthen his back and felt that he just needed a place to play games as he worked back into shape. Mike now lives with his brother in a Pikesville, Md., townhouse.
"I'm sure there were times he wasn't feeling great about what was going on, but I think he felt he was going to get over it and it just took longer than he wanted," Joe Flacco said. "At some point he knew he was going to get over it. He definitely wishes it would have been faster than it was, but he's really excited about what he's doing now."
Entering Tuesday's game against Baltimore City Community College, Flacco was batting .393 with 13 home runs and 49 RBI. By comparison, the rest of Catonsville's players had combined for just nine home runs.
"It's been crazy just getting back into baseball after two years sitting around and hoping I would be able to play again," Flacco said. "It's been awesome to get back. The crazy part is I thought I would be unknown, hoping I would have a good year and somebody would see me. But we show up for our first few games and there were three, four, five scouts at the games giving me their questionnaires to fill out."
The questionnaires are pretty basic; scouts consider them the starting point for a job interview. Still, for Flacco, they are a bit of a pain.
Scouts want to know about his past injuries: the stress fractures in his feet during high school that are believed to have been caused by his growth spurts, and the stress fracture in his back. They want to know whether he is dedicated to baseball, or would he rather be playing football like his brother. And they want to know why the heck he's in this position, while many of his high school classmates are getting ready to graduate from college.
"There's mixed reaction on this guy; he's the equivalent of a college senior and he hasn't played much," one of the scouts said, wondering how fast Flacco might be able to progress through the minor leagues. "I'd like to have him somewhere if his health is good. But our medical staff, he whacks guys for dandruff, for God's sake. What's he going to say when he sees some guy with back problems?"
But, as the Flacco family learned with Joe, it only takes one team to want to take a player. After all, being a top draft pick seemed unlikely when Joe transferred from Pittsburgh to division I-AA Delaware after two seasons with the Panthers. But Joe, the oldest of six siblings, blossomed at Delaware and eventually was taken 18th overall in last year's NFL draft by the Ravens.
The Flaccos hope that the Orioles might draft Mike, and the team has shown some interest, sending scouts to watch him. While college players usually have the leverage of returning to school to extract a larger signing bonus, it is pretty much assumed that Mike will sign a professional contract if drafted.
Catonsville Coach Dan Blue calls Flacco humble and unassuming, happy to just go about his business, which usually includes class in the morning, baseball in the afternoon and then dinner out with his brother. Mike said that he tried cooking a few times, with not-so-yummy results. Instead, the brothers head out for dinner at a nearby restaurant and some light conversation. Soon, Mike hopes, he can join Joe as a professional athlete.
"I want to finish the season out well here and I'm just hoping to get drafted at all," Mike said. "I'm hoping after the season maybe I can get some personal workouts with teams and get drafted. I don't know what to expect."