Chicago White Sox ACE: The backstory of a Michigan recruiting pipeline

Wednesday, March 11, 2020 - 7:57pm

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Alec Cohen/Daily

Michigan baseball players are not allowed to enter the locker room until they have all earned the right to do so.

Bakich created a months-long process of earning entry via hard work in the practice facility, classroom and community to fight back against entitlement — a sentiment he thinks is the root of the problem with many young players.

It’s a rule emblematic of Michigan’s hard-nosed attitude, something Bakich has aimed to make synonymous with his program

Among his other mechanisms of doing so? Recruiting from the Chicago White Sox ACE Program.

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Thirteen years ago, White Sox ACE Program founders Kenny Fullman and Nathan Durst sat down to solve a problem. 

The pair watched as talented players like Elliot Armstrong from the urban Chicago area were under-recruited, not receiving the press or attention from college coaches that Fullman and Durst felt they deserved. There must have been some sort of failure in the process.

It’s no secret that baseball’s history is marred with access problems. One need not look further than the existence of the Negro Leagues to view the problem rear its ugly head. 

Baseball’s access problems, though, still persist today, 73 years after Jackie Robinson tore through baseball’s color barrier.

They persist in the bank-breaking experience that is travel baseball. They persist in the price of the numerous showcases high-school age players attend to gain exposure. They persist in the lack of effort some college coaches make to recruit inner-city athletes.

In other words, the playing field of youth baseball is anything but level. That’s where programs like those created by Fullman and Durst come in.

The White Sox ACE Program provides inner-city 12 to 17-year olds with the opportunity to play high-caliber, competitive baseball against teams from throughout the country in order to put themselves in front of college coaches, and Fullman and Durst are its directors.

Jerry Reinsdorf, the owner of the Chicago White Sox ensures that Chicago White Sox Charities (CWSC) foot the bill for the kids to play in the program. CSWC covers the cost of uniforms, practice time, coaches and tournaments for the players, leaving only travel and lodging up to the players’ families.

“We were wondering why a lot of our kids from our community, from the inner-city, urban Chicago area were not getting any press or exposure,” Fullman said. “And we thought that was something that they needed, so we sat down and wrote things that we thought we might need to do in order for them to go to some of the schools of their choices.”

On the field, those things consisted largely of developing the fundamentals of athletic, skilled baseball players who played exceptionally but lacked the technical soundness often curated through years of private lessons in more affluent areas. But the services provided to Chicago-area kids by the White Sox ACE Program stretch far beyond the friendly confines of a baseball field.

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At first glance, it may be hard to imagine how life lessons relate to baseball, but redshirt freshman catcher and ACE Program alumnus Jordan Rogers argues that lessons of how to shake hands and look a man in his eyes were paramount to making a positive impression on Michigan coach Erik Bakich, a coach who focuses on developing his players as men as well as baseball players. 

Rogers is one of three Wolverines that hails from the ACE Program, along with senior outfielder Christan Bullock and junior left-hander Angelo Smith, a statistic that makes the ACE Program the most represented development program on Michigan’s roster and shows the effectiveness of the life lessons it teaches.

“It was a lot more than baseball,” Rogers said. “Being from the inner city, they just teach you the basic things about becoming a man. How to be on your own, how to talk, shake hands, look a man into his eyes. All of that stuff. Those are life lessons that you take on forever.”

At first glance, it may be hard to imagine how these life lessons relate to baseball, but Rogers argues that lessons like how to shake hands and look a man into his eyes were paramount to making a positive impression on Michigan coach Erik Bakich, a coach who focuses on developing his players as men as well as baseball players. 

In combination with excellent tutoring services and the strength, conditioning and technical coaching that the program provides, these life lessons have helped to ameliorate a problem potentially bigger than the monetary barriers to accessing baseball — the lack of inner-city baseball players playing for Division I programs. 

“One thing about coaching urban, inner-city kids, especially minority kids — you have to be better than everybody else,” Fullman said. “You have to work harder than everybody else to attract the attention of these college coaches. … And you have to have something that you do that’s better than everyone else so that you can be seen, so that you have the opportunity to play at the next level.”

The ACE Program created an environment that supports players’ quests to be a better player. It teaches players how to channel their hard work in an effective manner.

All that the directors of the program want college coaches to do in response is come see the program’s players for themselves.

And that is exactly what Bakich has done.

“It was crazy,” Bullock said of the first time Michigan coach Erik Bakich came to see him play. “Not a lot of people had come to the inner-city of Chicago.”

But the Wolverines have made recruiting in inner cities a priority in order to diversify their roster and give as many kids opportunities as they can.

“There’s a lot of great athletes out there, and I think it’s ridiculous the cost of travel ball and some of the showcases. It negates opportunities for a lot of kids. For us, we want to have a diverse roster and want to provide as many opportunities for kids all over the country that we can.”  

It is obvious that diversity is an important goal, especially in the context of a game in which there have been so many barriers to attaining it. However, people often lose sight of the reasons why, and thus ignore the sources of its value. 

“Different backgrounds, different experiences,” Smith said. “I think it helps team culture and things like that. I think it helps us not relate to each other, but build relationships. Guys from California and guys from Chicago basically learn the story of each other and grow from that.”

This pipeline from inner-city Chicago to Ann Arbor exists in context of a much larger effort by Bakich — the same effort that received national attention when he said, “We just think our roster should look like the United States of America,” on an ESPN broadcast of a College World Series game last year. 

Bakich’s commitment to creating an intersectionally-diverse roster shows itself in the roster’s make-up alone. But there is something significant about Bakich’s words that exists between the lines.

As the coach of a northern baseball program, particularly one that exists alongside the behemoth that is Michigan football, Bakich presides over a team that often lies in the shadows. 

For a month last year, the Wolverines’ success in the CWS vaulted them into the light, and Bakich used this unique opportunity to add power to a statement about diversity. 

He used it to tell every baseball-obsessed, college-hopeful ballplayer perched in front of a TV to watch the Wolverines take on Florida State that if they have the talent to compete at Michigan, he wants to give them the opportunity — no matter what their surroundings look like.

So, if Bakich looks to every area across the United States to find players to fill his 36-man roster, one question remains: How did players from one program in inner-city Chicago manage to fill almost a tenth of those spots in the first place?

“Coach Bakich is trying to win, and he’s looking for great players,” Fullman said. “He’s looking for baseball players, and we have good baseball players within our program.”

More than just that, though, the ACE Program produces the exact type of player that succeeds in Michigan’s team culture.
While both programs place a strong emphasis on creating a family atmosphere, they also both reject entitlement and emphasize earning your opportunities.

This becomes a valuable link almost immediately after a player moves to campus. 

“It benefitted me a lot,” Rogers said of the hardworking nature of the ACE Program. “Because I had a general guideline of what I had to do, how the work was going to be. Obviously, the work is different, I would be lying if I told you it wasn’t, but you just have a general idea of what to expect and how things are done.”

Smith and Bullock echoed this sentiment, a consistency that shows why Bakich has taken such a liking to the ACE Program. The gap between prep baseball to the collegiate level can be drastic, but ACE Program products come ready to do the hard work necessary to make the leap.

The fact that Michigan currently has three more ACE Program players — Tre Hondras, Tyler Fullman and Dillon Head — verbally committed to the team signifies that Bakich has recognized that preparedness and sees value in it.
While 13 years has not been quite enough time for Fullman and Durst to completely solve the problem they set out to fix, the pipeline that has sprung up between the ACE Program and Michigan is encouraging progress, and it is clear that the Wolverines are happy to be part of the solution.