Carpenter Cup Classic
By Frederick Jerant
Year after year, there’s plenty of hoopla about the Lehigh Valley Iron Pigs and the Reading Phillies. Both are solid teams, with ardent fan bases that pack their stadiums. And some players move onto the Phillies’ roster.
But there’s another baseball event that produces major-league talent, and is recognized as one of the best of its kind in the nation – the Carpenter Cup Classic tournament.
The single-elimination tourney, which celebrates its 26th anniversary in 2012, was named for two former owners of the Philadelphia team, Bob and Ruly Carpenter. The series itself is a showcase of over 400 of the best high-school hardballers in the Tri-State area.
The Lehigh Valley has fielded a team in the Carpenter Cup since 1992, and its record is impressive: 27 wins and 16 losses (the lowest number of losses among the 16 teams), and three championships – 1998, 2001, and 2011. Last year’s trophy ceremony at Citizens Bank Park was especially impressive because Phillies catcher Brian Schneider – an alumnus of the Lehigh Valley team…but I’m getting ahead of myself.
The Lehigh Valley team exists in large part because of J. F. Pirro, an English teacher at Emmaus high school, a former/current coach, and freelance writer (whose byline appears in Lehigh Valley Marketplace, among many other publications), who helped found the team and serves as its general manager.
Pirro’s been connected to the Carpenter Cup since his days as a high school journalist; he later covered the tournament for local newspapers.
During his early teaching years at Emmaus High, Pirro coached its baseball team, and decided that the Valley needed a Cup-worthy team. With help from Jeff Person, Mike Schneider, Frank Delanco and other coaches, he laid the groundwork for building the franchise.
Ted Plessl, a former teacher and baseball coach at Palmerton Senior High School, was at Pirro’s side while the franchise was gestating, and remembers some of the early days.
“Our first year, only seven or eight people showed up for tryouts! We were barely able to make a team, and our equipment was scarce – an old fungo bat [typically used in fielding practice] and a handful of baseballs. We used our own watches as timekeepers,” he says. “And we were allowed to participate only in ‘skills day,’ not play in the tournament itself.”
The Lehigh Valley team has come a long way since then, emerging as champions last year. “We’ve benefited from our coaches, past and present,” Pirro says. “Our current staff has more than 200 years of collective experience in seeing the game from different angles, and motivating the kids to play well.”
Last year, Pirro says, the team came together selflessly. “They gave every ounce of their talent and ability…but were also willing to drop out when substitutions were needed.”
The staff has many contacts in college-level and professional baseball, which can come into play during the tourney. Through the course of the contests, players are checked out by scouts from Major League Baseball teams and numerous colleges.
For such a prestigious event, you might think that assembling the team would be easy – just pick the very best – but it isn’t.
There are only 25 slots on the team (two players at each of the eight positions, two designated hitters and seven pitchers), “and we typically have 80-85 players trying out for spots,” Pirro says.
Tryouts are conducted on the athletic fields of DeSales University in Center Valley. “It’s a good situation for both of us,” says head baseball coach Tim Neiman. “The team uses the fields for tryouts and team practices, and our own coaching staff gets to see many good players and potential students.”
Local high school coaches are asked to send their premier players to the tryouts, which begin around Mother’s Day. “We usually have over 30 high schools participating,” says Plessl, “and we’re compelled by Cup rules to have open tryouts that are run under PIAA rules. In the long run, we turn down a lot of excellent players, but we need to assemble a team that works well together.”
For team members, that exposure can pay off. Several Lehigh Valley players later joined the professional ranks. For example:
• Brian Schneider- Montreal Expos
(now catches for the Phillies)
• Anthony Recker- Oakland A’s
• Mike Schneider- Montreal Expos
• Matt Krimmel- Cincinnati Reds
• Josh Perich- N. Y. Mets
• Mike Wenner- Oakland A’s
• Cody Weiss- Seattle Mariners
• Ryan Fry- Cincinnati Reds
• Mike Mihalik- Philadelphia Phillies
• Matt McBride- Cleveland Indians
• Sean Heimpel- San Diego Padres
Brian Schneider served as honorary chairman of the Carpenter Cup last year, and when the Lehigh Valley team took the championship, he decided they deserved special recognition.
“The team just missed winning in 2010, and I was really excited for them when they won last year. I didn’t want to just hand them a trophy during the ceremonies at Citizens Bank Park, so I arranged for all of the players and coaches to actually come onto the field during batting practice,” he says. (That’s an invitation-only honor, and is usually for only a few people at a time.)
“They got to meet some of the players, and got a close look at what I experience every day. I wanted to show them that, even though the big leagues may seem far away, you can still get there,” Schneider adds.
And even though every tournament doesn’t end with a championship, “I’ve heard – years later that many of our players remember it as the most fun they ever had playing baseball,” Pirro says. “They also forge lifetime relationships.”
Plessl, who is also head coach of the Blue Mountain League’s Hawks, concurs. “I can’t believe the number of former Cup players in this league,” he says. “It’s almost like a reunion! Although they played on different high-school teams then, they made some lifelong friendships, and they still love the game. And there’s a great sense of camaraderie among the older and younger Cup veterans. That’s the kind of stuff you don’t see in box scores, but it’s just as important.”