They drive east through the traffic-choked arteries of the Atlanta metroplex, past the strip malls and car dealerships, through the tall pines and emerald hills of Stone Mountain and finally onto the winding roads that take them through Gwinnett County, with its barbecue shacks, pet crematoriums and hunting depots (TWO-FOR-ONE DEER PROCESSING HERE!). They're headed to Loganville (pop. 10,601) and the neighboring town of Grayson (pop. 2,666), each home to one of the top two high school baseball players in America.
This is an article from the June 3, 2013 issue
They make this drive, the baseball men who've heard the tall tales, pored over the outlandish stats, studied the homemade YouTube clips of the rival centerfielders who are surefire top 10 picks in next week's major league draft. They come to see Clint Frazier of Loganville High, a redheaded, fullback-thick slugger. "The best high school power hitter who's come through the state of Georgia," says former minor leaguer Brad Bouras, now a coach in the area, "and I challenge anyone who says otherwise."
They also come to see Austin Meadows of Grayson High, another five-tool talent—tall and strapping, with blond hair and a lefthanded swing that's as sweet as a swig of Southern tea, he could be Roy Hobbs in a remake of The Natural. Says Cubs scout Keith Lockhart, "When he steps off a bus, you think, Now this kid looks like a major league player."
This season Frazier and Meadows faced off under an endless blue sky for one game only in March, a showdown that had the buildup of a Vegas title fight. ("We had the date circled back in January," says Lockhart.) Loganville High added makeshift bleachers to accommodate the crowd that stood, eight, nine, 10 deep. Kids from youth leagues across the state spilled out of buses. Major league scouts, nearly a hundred in all, scattered in the stands with their dark sunglasses and caps pulled low. Front office executives—Cubs president Theo Epstein, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and Red Sox G.M. Ben Cherington among them—rolled into a nearby middle school parking lot in their rental cars.
Amid the din of duck calls (they were distributed to fans at the gate) and shouting from a camo-clad crowd that made the Cameron Crazies seem sedate—an entire section of Loganville students was threatened with ejection before the game for their excessive heckling of the visiting team—Meadows went 0 for 1 with a walk and was hit by a pitch. Frazier homered twice to lead a 14--4 rout; his second bomb sailed over the electrical lines past the leftfield wall and disappeared into the oak trees. "A 500-foot shot, easily" says Loganville assistant coach Bran Mills. Adds Lockhart, "Any scout there would say that was the farthest home run they've ever seen in a high school game."
Frazier and Meadows are longtime friends, former travel teammates and products of a new Georgia baseball machine that is producing future big league All-Stars more efficiently than any other state's. But the story of how two kids who grew up 10 minutes from each other and went on to become the two best high school hitters in the country doesn't begin on the fields of Gwinnett County. It begins two decades earlier, at a stadium that no longer exists.
Gwinnett County, just northeast of Atlanta, is home not just to Frazier and Meadows but also to several other potential early-round picks in this year's draft. (That pair could be followed by Parkview High outfielder Josh Hart in the second or third round.) Scouts joke that the event should be held not at the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J., but at a shooting range in Loganville. It's not just Gwinnett, though. The rural counties south of Atlanta have also produced a staggering crop of talent in recent years, including reigning National League MVP Buster Posey (Lee County High, drafted in 2008), Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright (Glynn Academy, Brunswick County, 2000) and last year's No. 2 choice, Twins minor league outfielder Byron Buxton (Appling County High). And Cobb County, north of Atlanta, is the home of East Cobb Baseball, an elite youth program and a sort of Hogwarts for ballplayers that claims outfielder Jason Heyward and All-Star catcher Brian McCann of the Braves, among others, as alums.
Georgia's baseball renaissance began two decades ago at Fulton County Stadium, where a franchise that had underperformed for the better part of the 1980s suddenly played to packed houses of tomahawk-chopping fans. As general manager, John Schuerholz was the architect of teams that dominated the National League from 1991—the year Atlanta went from last place to within one game of winning the World Series—to the mid-2000s. "When we started winning, it awakened the spirit of baseball in this community," says Schuerholz, now the team's president, sitting in the Braves' dugout at Turner Field, their home since 1997. "This territory now is as aggressively scouted as Florida, Texas and California. Those were always the hotbed states. And then this talent source awakened and continues to grow and expand. It started in the immediate Atlanta area, and now it's all throughout the state."
Early in the Braves' run, high school and college coaches started telling Schuerholz's scouts that "it was [suddenly] exciting to be an amateur baseball player—to be the next Chipper Jones instead of a football player in what's always been a football-centric community," says Schuerholz. The G.M. had an epiphany: "I began to tell [then scout] Paul Snyder and [scouting director] Roy Clark that nobody—nobody—should beat us to a baseball player in the state of Georgia."
Aggressive scouting for nearby prospects overlooked by the other major league teams became a key to Atlanta's success. "For a good four or five years, when we had exclusivity on the area," says Schuerholz, "we had a larger percentage of Georgia players in our pipeline." Seven of the Braves' 23 first-round picks since 2000 have been Georgia-bred, from Wainwright (he was traded to St. Louis as a minor leaguer in 2003) to outfielder Jeff Francoeur (drafted out of Parkview High in Gwinnett County in 2002; after five seasons with Atlanta he was traded to the Mets in 2009) to Heyward (Henry County High, 2007) to minor league pitcher Lucas Sims (Brookwood High, Gwinnett County, 2012).
"The Braves were kicking everybody's butt," says Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator Tim Hyers, a former Georgia area scout for Boston. "Teams started to realize they had to keep them from doing that." A decade ago it was almost unheard of for a big league organization to have a scout devoted to a state other than California (pop. 38.0 million), Texas (26.1 million) or Florida (19.3 million); now nearly half have a scout assigned exclusively to Georgia (9.9 million). Says one NL executive, "The G.M.'s of teams that don't are committing malpractice."
Over the last three years Georgia high schools have produced nearly as many first-round picks (16) as Texas (18); only California and Florida had more first-rounders in that span. And there were more Georgia-born major leaguers last year than from any state other than California, Florida and Texas. "I think scouts are wise to spend a lot of time here," says Schuerholz. "I just wish they wouldn't."
The high standard for amateur programs in the state was set by East Cobb Baseball, based 30 miles north of Turner Field in the hills of Marietta. The 30-acre complex feels like a major league spring training compound, with eight diamonds, sponsors' banners draped over the outfield walls and plaques etched with the names of big leaguers who have passed through. Among them: Heyward, McCann, Francoeur, Rockies outfielder Dexter Fowler and White Sox second baseman Gordon Beckham. East Cobb, which has 82 teams for ages eight to 18 (the elite squads travel around the country to tournaments and showcases), has been around since the 1980s. But in recent years similar travel teams have sprung up throughout the state, offering more young players the chance to compete at high levels and train under full-time coaches—in many cases former major leaguers who have returned to the state. The country's top young talent flocks to the Atlanta area during summers to play against the best; at a recent East Cobb tournament Roger Clemens and Craig Biggio were in the stands watching their teenage sons. "A few years ago the scene other than East Cobb was minimal," says Bouras, who heads Team Elite, which has a facility east of Atlanta, in Barrow County, and one in Cobb County. "Now there's a travel team on every street corner." Bouras estimates that 75% of Georgia high school players join a travel team during the summer.
Bouras launched Team Elite eight years ago so top players could skip East Cobb and play closer to home—the program now has 25 travel teams and has had 40 alumni drafted and signed. Frazier and Meadows were unknowns nationally when they joined Team Elite as freshmen. Meadows's breakout came first: During a Team USA showcase in Lagos De Morena, Mexico, in 2011, he drove in 28 runs over eight games. Meadows estimates that last year he played nearly 150 games between high school and travel ball during the summer and fall. Meadows and Frazier spent the summer on the road with Bouras, jetting to showcases in San Diego, Minneapolis, Chicago and Syracuse. "Clint was seen," says Loganville coach Jeff Segars. "He went from being an underrated player to a top guy. And after that, the calls from teams were nonstop."
Major league clubs choosing high school players out of Georgia are getting prospects who are bigger, faster and closer to making an impact at the professional level. "Before I was drafted, I'd already seen the country and played against the best of the best in the country," says Heyward, who has been Atlanta's starting rightfielder since he was a 20-year-old rookie in 2010. "Without those experiences, there's no way I'd be where I am right now."
Compared to the NFL's overhyped, Kiper-ized NFL version, MLB's draft is minor league. But with young players valued more highly in the steroid-testing era and the free-agent market proving to be increasingly inefficient, it is determining the fortunes of franchises as never before. "With the trend of teams locking up their homegrown talent, free agency as a way to acquire players is dead," says an AL talent evaluator. "The currency of the game has always been homegrown talent, but that's more true than ever. It's so important to hit on your picks."
Potential first-round selections are now vetted with the thoroughness of the screening for Supreme Court justices. "There are people in every front office of every major league team who have done a study on how many 6-foot, 185-pound high school kids went on to the major leagues," says Lockhart. "How many redheads have been successful in the major leagues? I guarantee you teams have that question answered."
Frazier is 6 feet, 185 pounds and, yes, a redhead. This spring both he and Meadows hosted living room visits by scouts, scouting directors and assistant G.M.'s from every major league organization—the evaluators would go from one prospect's home straight to the other's in the next neighborhood. "It was like doing 30 job interviews," says Meadows. There were eye exams, reaction and memorization tests, 180-question surveys. "Some teams threw in some math questions, which wasn't good—I'm not very good at that," says Frazier. "One team asked, if I had to choose, whether I'd rather be an oak tree or a pine tree." He opted for oak—"more manly," he says.
One day this spring Frazier, who's been clocked at 98 mph throwing the ball from the outfield, was playfully flipping balls into a nearby bucket before a game; within a few hours his predraft adviser received a call from a big league team asking if there was something wrong with his arm. The scrutiny on Meadows was no less intense. "He has guys watching him just hitting off a tee," says Grayson coach Jed Hixson. "It was like they wanted to know what color underwear he was wearing."
The competition between Frazier and Meadows is friendly—they exchange texts, and each has embarrassing camera videos of the other—though, says Frazier, "it got not so friendly last summer," when the prospect rankings for this year's draft came out. While there's a mutual respect, "we both want to beat the other guy," Frazier says, "and we both know we're better than the other guy."
Most of the early national rankings had both players in the top 10, with Meadows higher. But Frazier has risen in most mock drafts. While Meadows—the mellower of the two—says he mostly ignores the rankings, Frazier is taking names of his nonbelievers. Of ESPN draft analyst Keith Law, he says, "He's got me ranked eighth and Austin third, even though he came to town and saw Austin go 2 for 3 with two singles. I led my game off with a home run and hit a home run in the next at bat. I saw like five pitches that day and hit two home runs, but he still left town saying I couldn't hit.
"I don't like that guy. And I can't wait to prove him wrong."
The strength of this year's draft is college pitching, with Stanford's Mark Appel or Oklahoma's Jonathan Gray expected to go first, to the Astros. The most compelling story line, though, is the Frazier-Meadows debate: Which Georgia kid would you rather have? They are predicted to go anywhere from fourth to 10th; scouts will tell you that Frazier (stronger arm, more power) and Meadows (faster, more projectable) have as much upside as any of the players available. "Two players you build around," says one scout. "If you polled people right now, it would be 50-50 on who's better."
Because of safety concerns, last year Georgia high schools adopted composite bats with a dampening system, and statewide home run totals plummeted. Frazier still hit 24 in 2012, one shy of the state's single-season record—which was set with aluminum bats. "I would have beaten the record with the old bats—I would have hit 30," says Frazier. This year he added another 14 regular-season home runs and began the playoffs nine short of the Georgia career record of 69, set by future big league pitcher Micah Owings in 2002. (It's the fourth-highest total in the country.) "If we keep playing all the way to the state championships," Frazier said in May, "I am going to break that record."
Frazier doesn't look like a prototypical slugger, and not just because of his Carrot Top hair. At 6 feet he's never the biggest player on the field, though he's always had jaw-dropping strength. When he was a sixth-grader taking the President's Challenge Physical Fitness Test, his gym teacher mentioned that the record for consecutive push-ups was around 120. Frazier dropped down and ripped off 142. When he was in the seventh grade, he was a team manager on the Loganville High team, and once in a while Coach Segars would let him take BP. "He'd be parking balls over the fence," Segars says. "Everyone would stop what they were doing to watch him hit."
Meadows has his own legendary stories. He didn't put up Frazier's gaudy numbers this spring (he batted .535 with four home runs and 17 steals), but with a 6'3", 212-pound frame, his ceiling may be higher. During an exhibition for the nation's top players at the Metrodome in Minneapolis last summer, he offered a glimpse of his power potential: During his first BP session he launched a ball into the upper deck, by far the longest shot that weekend. "He's one of those rare guys where the sound of the ball off the bat is different," says Hixson. "His power will come. And it will be big."
Meadows played his last game for Grayson on May 7—he went 3 for 6 with five walks in the first round of the Region AAAAA playoffs. Frazier's great home run chase—as well as Loganville's pursuit of a second straight state championship—concluded in the regional quarterfinals. He added three home runs in the postseason, finishing his career with a total of 63. In a few weeks MLB commissioner Bud Selig will call both their names at the draft, and they'll leave Gwinnett County behind to begin their professional careers. The number of scouts making the drive to baseball's new hotbed, though, will keep growing. There's already buzz around a pair of Team Elite pitchers (Mac Marshall of Parkview High and Dylan Cease of Milton High in Fulton County) who are being projected as top five picks in 2014. "And have you heard what Mike Cameron's son is doing?" Lockhart asked one recent afternoon as he rolled into a parking lot for another game, to see another high school player, in another Georgia town. Lockhart, a former Braves infielder who now lives in Atlanta, was referring to Dazmon Cameron, a sophomore at Eagle's Landing Christian Academy in McDonough. A product of East Cobb Baseball, the son of the longtime major league outfielder is a potential top pick as an outfielder in 2015.
"He's absolutely tearing the cover off the ball," Lockhart said. Then he paused, as if he needed to catch his breath. "These kids, it's hard to keep up," he said. "They just keep coming."
For complete coverage of the major league June draft, including a prediction of the first round and a look at the pros and cons of drafting high school or college players, go to SI.com/mag