'We Want to Make Baseball Cool Again': Perfect Game is Leading a New Era of Youth Sports

Perfect Game Logo Baseball
Perfect Game Logo Baseball / Courtesy of Perfect Game

Baseball's roots are burrowed deeply across the country. Nearly everybody you come across will have played some version when they were young, even if they didn't make it past the tee-ball stage. For many, it is a central aspect of the fabric of American life. It is simple to learn and easy to play, accessible to all ages and skill levels. It instills social skills and teamwork, teaches the joy of winning and how to cope with defeat.

For some, that's all baseball is — a learning ground from their formative years. For others, it becomes a career. A life. Such longevity isn't in the cards for everyone, of course. Of the millions of kids who suit up for Little League every year, the smallest fraction of a percentage will play past the high school level, and an even smaller fraction will end up signing a contract with a professional organization. Smaller still is the group who makes it to the big leagues.

Regardless of where they end up, though, everyone starts at the same place. The grassroots level, as it's called, is where the game grows and where its future is realized. It's also where baseball has suffered the most over the last few decades, with popularity waning in comparison to other sports. Major League Baseball has tried to fix that in recent years, going so far as to introduce new rules to invite more interest. But top-down changes alone will not solve these issues.

Enter Perfect Game, a youth sports company focused on making an impact at that grassroots level. With the tagline "the world's largest and most comprehensive scouting organization" featured on its website, PG is building to be more than that. It hosts massive youth baseball tournaments all over the country, giving baseball an infrastructure to provide as many opportunities as possible for kids of all ages to reach their potential. The company's partnerships with many current and former MLB players give youths a glimpse of a possible future and insight into the highest level of technique. All in pursuit of developing baseball at the youth level — because that is what matters most.

"What we’re trying to do is, we want to make baseball cool again," President and Chairman Rick Thurman told The Big Lead. " Where do you start doing that? You do it at the grassroots level. You grow the game at the very bottom."

Ryan Klesko at a Perfect Game tournament
Ryan Klesko at a Perfect Game tournament /

Perfect Game was founded in 1995 and spent the following decades establishing itself as one of the top youth baseball companies in the space. Operating in the 14-18 age range, players participated in PG tournaments and had statistics logged in the company's database. That database was used by scouts in MLB organizations across the country to identify high school talent, an incredibly valuable resource. There are thousands of young players for these scouts to sift through. PG presented a uniform system to utilize, and their showcases attracted the best players in the country.

In 2018, Thurman took control of the company along with his partner Rob Ponger, now the CEO of PG. Thurman is a baseball lifer; he played in the Los Angeles Dodgers system before founding the Beverly Hills Sports Council, where he represented over 4,000 professional athletes starting in 1983. He knows the game inside and out. He and Ponger felt Perfect Game was unique in the youth travel sports system, and there was an opportunity to make it even bigger than it already was. Thurman said the "secret sauce" of the enterprise was the scouting profiles already in place, but there were plenty of other areas of growth that could make a positive impact.

"We also thought we could do other things with the brand that could make it better or cooler," he said. "One of those things was, why are we only in 14-18? So many kids play baseball from 8-13. The problem is a lot of kids quit by the time they hit 14. But the reality is that sports, high school sports, youth sports, team sports teach you things that school doesn’t always teach you. You learn leadership skills, you learn how to work really hard, you learn how to work with groups of people, you learn competitiveness. It’s stuff you may not learn in the classroom and there’s a lot of life lessons that come along with it.

"Let’s acquire other youth events companies, attach them to PG, and then you have a pipeline going up."

Nearly six years later, that pipeline is thriving. According to Thurman, the company has 100,000 baseball teams in its ecosystem and an astounding two million youth participants. Their website is littered with quotes from big MLB names like Brian Cashman and Mike Trout, praising the PG operation and the benefits that come with being part of it. If a young baseball player is serious about doing everything they can to get on the radars of decision-makers at all levels of the game, Perfect Game is, well, the perfect place to do it.

It's not just the exposure that's valuable, though. Perhaps the most impactful aspect of PG is giving the kids face time with current and former professional ball players. Many of Perfect Game's tournaments will feature these pros as coaches and teachers. Sometimes they'll just show up and wander around, signing autographs and giving advice whenever asked. It is, of course, a tremendous opportunity for the youths who dream of reaching those same heights. It's also a great way for the players to give back to the game they love.

"Growing up as a kid, I don’t think I saw or talked to a major leaguer until I was a junior or senior in high school," said Ryan Klesko, a 15-year MLB veteran and World Series Champion. "Just that alone, having a chance to sit down and talk with a major leaguer about hitting or pitching or strength and conditioning or nutrition. It’s completely out of the ballpark, how well they’re doing with that."

Klesko, who earned the nickname "Boots On The Ground" for how often he's been spotted at Perfect Game tournaments over the years, first came across the company as his son entered the youth sports world. He knew Thurman from his time in the bigs and has always loved teaching youth baseball players, so it made for an easy match. Their partnership has progressed to the point where Klesko was named special assistant to ownership earlier this year.

"We’re trying to teach the kids what I got taught in the pros to give them a better shot to be the best they can be," he said. "That’s something we’ve really focused on. The PG camps, the Showcase, the All-American games, Rick and Rob have gone out of their way to get as many major leaguers as we can out there to really, not just show themselves, but to work with the guys. They tell the kids to not come up to me, Mo Vaughn, Charles Johnson, to ask for an autograph– try to find a way to get better. That part alone gives me the utmost respect for Perfect Game.

"I enjoy thinking back about all the people who helped me get to where I made it. If it weren’t for them there’s no way I would’ve made it. I just respect that and, I guess you could say, pay it forward, right?"

Flash Gordon and a player
Flash Gordon and a player /

That line of thinking is pervasive among the Major Leaguers Perfect Game has recruited. They all love baseball with a burning passion, of course, but they're also grateful for the chance to pay it forward.

"Let me put it this way: I love the game of baseball," former AL MVP and current Perfect Game coach Mo Vaughn said. "It’s given me everything. Every opportunity I could have in life. To be able to get back in the game at this level, being on the field and directly affecting young people, is a tremendous thing. To be able to double back and be affecting the game at the grassroots level, I couldn’t ask for anything more."

Another former big leaguer in the PG ranks, Trevor Hoffman, is of a similar mindset. Hoffman is still employed by the San Diego Padres after spending 15 of his 18 years in the Majors with the franchise, and became a Perfect Game ambassador through Thurman.

"The game is always about the player– not the ones that used to play, but the ones that are playing," the Hall of Famer said. "We get a chance to impart some wisdom and be around that next wave of player that’s coming. It’s such a neat dynamic that we get to be apart of and get to see what the next wave of kid who’s coming up is thinking about and doing.

"I don’t think there’s anything a former player could look forward to more than being able to be a sounding board and give some advice. Albeit some of it is probably not relevant, but some things you can’t change like stripes on a zebra. Some things will stay consistent no matter how much you tweak the wheel."

Tom "Flash" Gordon has been working with the organization longer than all the former big leaguers now involved. He played in the Boston Red Sox system with Ben Ford, whose parents founded Perfect Game. Gordon spent the years prior to Thurman and Ponger's acquisition working with Ford to recruit fellow retired players to appear at the PG tournaments, and is impressed with how far the company has come in the last few years.

"They’ve done a heck of a job with the program and they’ve done a hell of a job setting the stage for the kids to play," said Gordon, a regular coach and manager at PG tournaments. "With all the guys we have that are ex-major leaguers at PG, all of us feel the same way about being able to give them information that we borrowed for a little while. We do the very best we can helping the kids with mechanics and talking to kids, having symposiums where we can actually sit with them, get feedback from them. They ask questions, we give answers. It’s just so many great things that make who we are, we are."

It's obvious the former big leaguers all feel passionately about Perfect Game and all it encompasses. But the four players mentioned, along with over a dozen others, are happy to put their money where their mouth is, too. Klesko, Hoffman, Vaughn, and Gordon were all part of Perfect Game's investment group, announced earlier this month. Joining them are names such as Alfonso Soriano, Charlie Manuel, and Tim Lincecum. In total, 21 former and current MLB players are investing in the success and future of Perfect Game.

“The decision to not just invest in Perfect Game but also be invested in the future of the athletes that play in PG events speaks volumes about the dedication this group has to the future of baseball,” said Ponger per a press release. “Our group of investors are not satisfied to just watch Perfect Game athletes from afar but also work closely with the next generation of major league players to not just make them better on the field, but off it as well.”

With all the good it has already done, it's also clear Perfect Game believes there are more frontiers to surpass. Thurman and Ponger have pushed PG beyond the borders of America, holding events in the Czech Republic and Barcelona, among other international spots. They plan to hold their first event in Japan this summer. PG's apparel line is something Thurman believes will grow in the coming years. There are plans to break into the softball space, and it wouldn't be a shock to see Perfect Game make waves in basketball and soccer, too.

Youth sports are ever-changing but the company is well-positioned to be at the forefront for years to come. As Thurman puts it, there appears to be only blue skies ahead for Perfect Game.

"Everybody loves [youth sports]," he said. "It’s growing, and quite honestly when you turn on TV you see a lot more youth sports on TV than you did 10 years ago. It’s a growing area. Youth sports are a cool place to be right now."