Lee baseball star Griffin headed to national showcases

Photo by Danny Aller

Photo by Danny Aller

LEESBURG -- There's an old adage in baseball about the catcher's equipment being called the tools of ignorance.

Yankee Hall of Famer catcher Bill Dickey coined the phrase, which had a touch of irony, contrasting the intelligence needed by a catcher to handle the duties of the position with the foolishness needed to play a position so hazardous that it requires all of the protective gear.

Chase Griffin has added a new twist to that phrase.

The Lee County rising senior may wear the tools of ignorance, but he has insight beyond his years -- a kid who can see his future through the bars of a catcher's mask.

That future has never looked brighter for the Trojans' catcher who is on the brink of appearing in two of the most renowned baseball showcases in the nation.

"It's a little unreal,'' said Griffin, who has been invited by the Houston Astros to compete in the East Coast Professional Baseball Showcase this week in Lakeland, Fla., which begins Saturday.

When Griffin is finished in Florida, where scouts from every big-league club will watch six teams play a five-day round-robin tournament, he will take off for Long Beach, Calif., where he will then play in the most prestigious high school baseball showcase in the nation. The Oakland Athletics have invited Griffin to compete in the legendary Area Code Games in Long Beach, where another big league scout-fest will show up for games being played from Aug. 5 through Aug. 10.

Griffin, meanwhile, might have spent the summer in Leesburg if not for his desire to crawl behind the plate and become a catcher.

"When scouts ask me how long I've been catching and I tell them just this year, they are always surprised,'' said Griffin, who grew up playing third base and in the outfield. He made the switch in the middle of the high school season for two reasons: To help Lee County's team, and to help himself.

Griffin and his father, Todd, talked about him making the move even before Lee County's starting catcher quit the team. It was a no-brainer (well, a brainstorm) for Griffin, who calculated the move.

"I wanted to step up and help the team, and I thought it would benefit me in the long run when it came to college scouts,'' Griffin said. "In the outfield, I'm not the fastest guy in the world, but I have a pretty strong arm. And I was thinking that if you're a catcher who can put up some numbers, it would be easier to get to the next level than being an outfielder. It's harder to find a catcher who can hit than it is to find an outfielder who can hit.''

Tools of brilliance? That's the way it has worked out for Griffin, who has always been able to put up numbers. He somehow made the difficult adjustment, learning how to catch behind the plate, without it hurting him at the plate.

"The amazing thing is he didn't move behind the plate until the middle of the season,'' Lee County coach Rob Williams said. "He's learning the position on the run.''

Griffin's numbers were staggering this past season. He led Lee County in hitting with a .444 batting average, and drove in 34 runs on 36 hits to lead the team in RBI. Of his 36 hits, 13 went for extra bases, including four home runs and three triples.

And while he was hammering the ball, he was learning the difficult task of blocking the plate, digging balls out of the dirt, learning footwork, developing his quickness and handling pitchers.

"Everyone always talks about how you need to have a strong arm to be a catcher, but if you can't block pitches it doesn't matter what kind of arm you have,'' Williams said. "He really took to it, and did a good job blocking the plate. (Lee assistant coach) Chris Harris worked with him, and we were surprised at how quickly he came along.''

Part of that equation is Griffin's makeup. He's a tough kid, full of heart, dedication and a love for the game, but he's also as bright as neon and plans to graduate next spring as an honor student.

"He's real good in the classroom, and that tells you all about his character,'' Williams said of Griffin's goal of graduating as an honor role student. "He's a good athlete and a hard-nose young man, and he worked hard to learn the position. He has a strong arm, and his footwork is getting better and better. Once he gets the footwork down, there's no telling how far he can go.''

Griffin may be going to Lakeland and Long Beach, but these showcases could be just the beginning.

"It's quite an honor for him to be chosen to play in (these showcases),'' Williams said. "He has already generated a lot of interest, and playing against this competition is great. He's playing in some pretty tall cotton. If he plays well, he will open a lot of eyes.''

None of this is lost on Griffin, who knows all too well the significance of the two showcases.

"This is what I've been waiting for all my life,'' he said. "It's hard to believe. I'm probably going to be a little nervous, but once the game begins I'll get zoned in and won't be as nervous. This will give me a chance to see what I'm made of, going against the best in the nation.''

Griffin started dreaming about playing in the big leagues when he was 6 years old, and he has loved the game since. That's what has driven him -- the pure joy of the game.

"It was a pretty far-fetched dream back then, but if you work hard enough, you might just make it,'' Griffin said.

And it doesn't hurt to be bright enough to make it either.

"Yeah, I'm glad I became a catcher,'' he said with a smile.