Who’s Your Best High School Athlete?

Over at the always-entertaining D.C. Sports Bog today, The Washington Post’s Dan Steinberg (he of “Pimp My Sneaker” fame) has a post about the best high school athletes he and some of the more esteemed members of his newspaper have ever seen. On the early list: Adrian Dantley, Dwight Howard, Tiger Woods, Tedy Bruschi and Delonte West. Not too shabby.

We’d love to hear your opinion. Feel free to name the best high school athlete you’ve seen in the comments section below.

Here’s my tome of an offering, after the jump.

The Best There Was. The Best There Is. The Best There Will Be.

by Ben Cohen

The New Jersey basketball scene is synonymous with future stardom. This year, the area featured the top two teams in the country in St. Anthony and St. Benedict’s. Poor St. Patrick, coached by the so-called Darth Vader of high school basketball in Kevin Boyle, finished the season ranked 12th nationally. The list of players to emerge from the swamps of Jersey is equally impressive, if not more so; if you can survive the rugged fall leagues, the Tournament of Champions in March, a Bob Hurley practice and the persistent insults implicit in hailing from New Jersey, everything is a breeze after high school.

Tim Thomas was a three-time All-American from Paterson Catholic in the 90s and was considered by some to be better than the other high school phenom from the Class of 1996, this hack named after some kind of Japanese beef-Kobe Bryant, that is. I Saw Thomas at Sonny Vaccaro’s ABCD Camp in 1995. My father claims that when we walked back into my house that night, I was still raving about Thomas as he secretly called some of his friends and told him he had seen the best high school player he had ever seen, and his name certainly wasn’t Tim Thomas.

That decade was a glorious time to be a high school basketball fan in New Jersey. Dahntay Jones starred at Steinert and even played at the state university, Rutgers, for two years before following his high school buddy, Jason Williams, to Duke. Another ex-Dukie, Luol Deng, teamed with former Connecticut star Charlie Villanueva in a state tournament game at my high school gym. In warmups, both routinely swished 40-footers. In the actual game, Deng threw an alley-oop to Villanueva, who grabbed the ball, ducked under the rim and slammed it backward, with his back turned to Deng. The legions of admirers oohed and aahed, but, truth be told, no fan there knew how to react. After all, my friend and I had pulled the same stunt just hours earlier in the JV game.

But the best high school athlete I’ve seen didn’t play basketball. Actually, that’s not true. He did play basketball for a few years, and, given his success in his other prime endeavor, probably would have been the second coming of Tim Thomas, whose retired jersey at Paterson Catholic is accompanied with a benediction: “The Best There Is. The Best There Was. The Best There Will Be.” (Apparently, my father did not call the person who commissioned that sign.)

It’s easy to mistake recent memory for history, especially in context of a storied program. But it’s hard to argue with this: Rick Porcello is the best baseball player to ever graduate from Seton Hall Prep, the St. Anthony of New Jersey baseball. In 25 years, we will still be laughing at Thomas’ legacy. If Seton Hall Prep were to hang a similar commemoration of Porcello’s time, it would be taken seriously.

I’m weary of all high school statistics, especially in baseball. Coaches inflate hits and RBI and magically calculate ERA, simply to place players on the All-This and All-That teams. Porcello’s senior-year numbers are gaudy enough to be fake, but Porcello was nasty enough for them to be incontrovertibly true: 10-0, 112 strikeouts and only 15 walks in 71 innings and a realistic 1.18 ERA. The right-handed pitcher was Gatorade’s best player in the country and was widely considered the top pitching prospect in the MLB Draft. He slipped to the No. 27 overall pick, mostly because he signed uber-agent Scott Boras. His right arm earned an unprecedented $10 million contract with the Detroit Tigers, mostly because he signed uber-agent Scott Boras. And by the way, he also hit .478 with 48 hits, 11 home runs and a 1.033 slugging percentage.

I saw Porcello pitch just once, though I heard about him frequently. Fans would return from Seton Hall Prep games and make the kind of outlandish and juvenile statements too common in high school athletics. Didja hear? Porcello hit 98 in 30-degree weather! Have ya heard? There were 45 scouts behind home plate today! I am, admittedly, a cynic and was dubious of anonymous message board hawks. No one throws that hard in New Jersey Aprils. And despite his commitment to North Carolina, everyone knew he was going pro as long as his arm held up. Professional teams were not sending multiple scouts to check out a hard-throwing right-hander from New Jersey.

So it was with some level of reservation that I attended my first Porcello start. He was pitching in the county semifinals against my alma mater, which happened to counter Porcello with a stud in his own right, a sophomore who would garner second-team all-state honors later that year. Porcello couldn’t be this good, I thought all morning. My boy’s going to beat him.

And he might have, if Porcello didn’t throw a perfect game.

Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to realize a virtuoso performance as soon as it starts. As much as I was pulling for my former teammates, I knew it was a futile cause after the game’s first pitch. Our leadoff hitter took a vicious rip at Porcello’s first offering, which everyone at the stadium knew would be a fastball. He fouled it straight back to the cage; he was less than a half a seam away from depositing a seed over the center fielder’s head. But he was cooked after that, as was everyone else, and the fans seemed to understand that. Hell, even the home-plate umpire asked Porcello to sign a game ball in the parking lot.

Porcello struck out 12 that sun-drenched Saturday afternoon, and he hovered around 93 on the radar gun. I would know, because I sat behind a scout the entire game to verify Porcello’s speed. It was impossible, however, to put a value on Porcello’s pinpoint precision and demeanor: the way he spotted his fastball two inches off the outside corner, the serene manner in which he conducted himself, the times he followed high cheese with a changeup or hellacious curveball. My former team made it to the state final that year; Porcello made them look like Little Leaguers.

The perfect game is still prominently displayed on his Wikipedia page, and, if there is a god watching over the encyclopedia and its incessant and anonymous editors, it will be forever. Because it wouldn’t have mattered who stepped into the batter’s box that day or the composition of his bat he wielded. If Barry Bonds waltzed up to Doc Goeltz Field in Verona and was handed a fresh aluminum bat with the newest carbon nanotube technology, Rick Porcello, the best high school athlete I’ve ever seen, would have gassed him up and sat him down. Bonds would have trudged back to the dugout and simply shaken his oversized head in wonder. It was all the rest of us could do.

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