Sports / The Prairie Fire / May 17, 2017

For the love of the game

Seniors Alec Jordan and Drake Sykes greet each other on the field as they celebrate a Knox victory last season. During their years on the Knox Baseball team, both Jordan and Sykes have firmly placed themselves among the greatest athletes to play at Knox. (Photo courtesy of the Office of Communications)

As their Knox baseball careers come to a close, seniors Alec Jordan and Drake Sykes have turned their focus to the Major League Baseball draft beginning on June 12, hoping to be recognized for their years of strong college play.

Needless to say, it is incredibly rare for a Knox baseball player to be drafted into the MLB, or any Knox athlete to move on to the higher level of any sport for that matter.

Jordan and Sykes both have a legitimate chance to hear their name called between June 12 and 14, though neither is fully banking on this happening.

“If we’re being realistic, neither one of us will go within the first 15 rounds. As far as D-III baseball goes, you don’t really see guys go that high,” Sykes said.

The MLB draft differs from the selection processes of other large athletic organizations in several ways.

First, while around 260 players get selected in the NFL and NBA drafts each year respectively, the MLB draft regularly tops the 1,500 mark, as teams go through 40 rounds of drafting. These players can also be selected out of college or high school, which both the NFL and NBA have rules against.

Second, the MLB draft is not as hyped up for viewership because of the nature of the development process in MLB. While early NBA and NFL draft picks normally play a big part in the team’s season the very next year, even the best MLB prospects can take anywhere from two to five years to develop in the minor leagues, which does not get much attention from fans.

Still, considering the number of baseball teams in high schools and colleges across the country, even being considered for the MLB draft is a massive honor in itself.

For both Jordan and Sykes, this process did not just begin in the past month. Just as it is for thousands of young people across the world, this has long been the goal and singular focus for both players when they think about the future.

“I want to play until they make me stop because I just love doing this. I don’t even know what I would do outside of baseball because all my free time is filled with something related to baseball,” Jordan said.

Since they each started their college careers, both Jordan and Sykes have also used their summer breaks to work on their skills.

While both played on many different teams spanning the entire country, they joined together to play on the Geneva Red Wings of the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. This league, made up of 13 teams with one more joining this summer, is for college-aged baseball players who want to compete and work on their craft over the summer, while also getting an opportunity to make connections within the sport and be exposed to MLB scouts.

Assistant Baseball Coach/Recruiting Coordinator James Clark played a big role in getting Jordan and Sykes into this league, as did Head Coach Jami Isaacson.

“Coach Clark and Coach [Isaacson] both have great connections in baseball around the country. Coach Clark checks out which teams are looking for certain players and sees if we have anything to offer them,” Jordan explained.

Finding a place for Knox players who want a place to keep working on their game over the summer is incredibly important to Clark, as it can help a player grow and bring their improved skills back to Knox the next season.

“In the fall we ask our players what they want to do over the summer. There are some really good leagues out there. We want them to compete over the summer so they can get better for us, obviously,” Clark said.

After setting Jordan, Sykes and junior Paul Sanders up with teams in earlier summers, Clark was able to secure a spot for each of them in the Perfect Game Collegiate Baseball League. Unfortunately, Sanders suffered a serious injury during last year’s Knox season, making him unable to play in the league.

Still, to be accepted onto a PGCBL team’s roster in itself is an accomplishment, as Clark says that the “league is definitely top-10 in the country in terms of summer leagues, some summers it can even be top-five.”

Coming into the summer league knowing that he would be competing against some of the best college players in the country, Sykes had tempered his expectations.

“Playing in a top-five league and coming from a D-III program, I didn’t really expect to be playing over all of these great D-I players. Next thing I know though, I saw my name in the lineup and I’m playing right field,” Sykes said.

Both Sykes and Jordan were able to capture and maintain consistent roles with the Red Wings throughout the summer season, both finding success on the field.

Jordan, the Knox career strikeout leader, pitched to a 2-6 record with a 4.99 ERA, but managed to strike out 33 batters in 57.2 innings. While these numbers do not compare to his Knox statistics, that Jordan was able to finish second on the team in both wins and strikeouts coming from a Division III program is impressive.

Sykes had a slow start to the season, undoubtedly adjusting to the higher level of play of his opponents. However, he was able to finish third on the team with a .313 batting average and led the Red Wings with 26 RBIs, thanks to a huge tear with which he closed the final 13 games of the season. In these games, Sykes hit .426 with 14 RBIs.

Over the entire season, Sykes finished 15th in batting average, tied for eighth in RBIs and fourth in at-bats. Needless to say, Sykes was able to be the Red Wings’ anchor in the batting order just as he has been during his three years at Knox.

Not only did their success allow Jordan and Sykes to enjoy their summer even more than usual and draw attention to themselves in scouting circles, but they also helped ensure that future Knox baseball players can have similar opportunities.

“Having them be successful in these leagues not only helps them, but makes it more likely that we’ll be able to place players in the future because they know we have guys who can play,” Clark explained.

Even with this sustained success on multiple levels, it is difficult to determine whether or not Jordan and Sykes will be drafted this year. For Jordan, his draft stock definitely took a hit due to his season-ending hairline fracture in his forearm, but not getting drafted does not mean that a player will not have a professional career in baseball.

“If we are free agents, it gives us the opportunity to talk to multiple teams or figure out if a different league would be better for us. That’s all you can really hope for. Everyone wants to get drafted, but really if you don’t get drafted it’s not the end of the world,” Jordan said.

Sykes agreed, explaining that they had “already talked to a guy from York who invited us to go tryout if the draft doesn’t pan out.”

Clark agreed, saying that both could look to play in the Independent League or overseas if they do not get drafted or sign with a minor league club.

During his time coaching the Quincy Gems over past summers, Clark had an up-close look at the stress this process can put on these players.

“I had a couple kids when I was coaching with the Gems who thought to the last day that they would get drafted and they didn’t. So it can be a pretty hectic process in terms of you just don’t know what is going to happen,” Clark said.

It does not seem to matter much to Jordan or Sykes, as both acknowledge that regardless of what happens, they will have to work even harder than ever to move up toward their dream of playing professionally.

“If you are given an opportunity, you really just have to try to take advantage of it,” Sykes said.

Still, Jordan concedes that this has been a stressful process.

“It’s definitely not a journey for the faint of heart. Even in the minor leagues, it’s not really a fun time, but you play because you love the game,” he said.

In terms of what having a player or two drafted out of Knox would mean for the school’s baseball program, Clark prefers to focus on the impact it would have on Jordan and Sykes.

“I think it would help with recruiting, but I think it’s bigger for them than it is for us. I would just be happy for them to have the experience and be able to keep playing the sport that they love. They are two of the best players I have ever had the opportunity to coach, so I just wish them the best of luck with their future and hopefully it all works out,” Clark said.

If playing professionally does not pan out for Jordan, he knows that he will still be involved in the game of baseball in some form.

“I’d love to be involved in baseball in some way, whether that’s coaching or working in a front office,” he said.

Still, both Sykes and Jordan are fully determined to make this dream become a reality.

“If I get the opportunity, I’m going to play until I can’t anymore,” Sykes said.

“Yeah, until they take the ball out of my hand,” Jordan added.

And so, as two of the best baseball players to ever bring their talents to Knox graduate, they leave behind strong legacies and rewritten school record books.

Jordan, the strikeout king, finishes his career with 201 strikeouts.

Sykes, the Knox base-stealing and total bases record holder, leaves on a third straight All-Midwest Conference Baseball Team honor.

Both of these stars hope to be reporting to an MLB team’s minor league affiliate just weeks after walking across the stage to earn their diplomas. The legacies left behind by Jordan and Sykes are sure to remain at Knox for the foreseeable future.

 

Jonathan Schrag, Managing Editor
Jonathan Schrag is a junior majoring in Political Science and double minoring in Educational Policy and History. He has been writing since Fall Term of his freshman year and has contributed to News, Sports and Discourse.

Tags:  alec jordan drake sykes James Clark Jami Isaacson knox baseball MLB draft paul sanders PGCBL

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