E.A. Sports Today

Top gunners

Top Gun Black catches fire in bracket play to win Cal Ripken 12U Beach Bash, but Experience didn’t end there

Top Gun Black 12U won the Cal Ripken Experience Beach Bash last week in Myrtle Beach. (Kneeling L to R) Matt Johnson, Hugh Windle, Drew McBurnett, Slade St. Clair, Tait Nunnery. (Back row L to R) Coach Shannon Robertson, Drew McCormick, Sam Robertson, Connor Fisher, MVP Zach Johnson, Coach Roby Brooks. (Photo courtesy of Roby Brooks)

By Al Muskewitz
East Alabama Sports Today

The Cal Ripken Experience turned out to be quite the experience for a group of local 12-year-old baseball players and for some it extended all the way to the major leagues.

Top Gun Black won the Experience’s Beach Bash last week in Myrtle Beach, playing what TG founder and manager Roby Brooks called “some of the best baseball we have ever played in our lives for about 48 hours.”

But for Brooks at least one of his players the experience and adventure didn’t stop there. With plans that would challenge even the most experienced travel professional, they went from the beach to Birmingham to Cincinnati – all on about two hours sleep — to watch former Oxford right-hander and Top Gun pitching instructor Jackson Stephens make his major-league debut with the Cincinnati Reds.

“I think I was in seven states in about 36 hours,” Brooks said. “To win the championship game, then see Jackson throw his first major-league pitch, get his first hit and his first win, then go out to eat dinner with him … it was worth every penny.”

Top Gun sent three teams to the Beach Bash. TG Black went 3-2 in pool play, then ripped through bracket play by outscoring their opponents 55-1 to win the title.

They beat Team Hoover in the championship game 11-0 behind a one-hitter from well-rested tournament MVP Zach Johnson (Moody). Hugh Windle (Springville) threw a five-hit shutout against an undefeated team from Michigan in the semifinals and Oxford’s Drew McCormick threw a two-hitter in the quarterfinals. Everybody in the lineup had multiple hits in the championship game.

“We came out of the pool seeded in the middle of the pack and just caught fire,” Brooks said. “We played some of the best baseball that we have ever played in our lives for about 48 hours, four games worth. I don’t know if the Braves could have beaten us in those two days. The first three days we played right the opposite.”

“It was awesome,” shortstop Sam Robertson said. “Those last four or five games we could just hit anything they pitched and on defense they couldn’t hit a ball past us. It was outstanding. It was probably the best five games we’ve played together. Something just clicked.”

But their experience didn’t end at the beach. A little past midnight Thursday Brooks got a phone call from Stephens to share the news he was getting promoted again to the majors. After coaching all three Top Gun teams 17 games the last three days Brooks was too tired to answer anyone, but the calls persisted.

“I texted him and said the only way I’m going to answer this is if you get called up to the big leagues,” Brooks said. “He said he had to be at the park at 6:30. We talked for about 30 minutes. He was pumped, excited and asked us to come up and I said let me see what I can do.”

Later that day Reds manager Bryan Price announced publicly Stephens would make his major-league debut Saturday in a start against the Cubs.

Brooks has trained Stephens the last couple years and the pitcher in turn has worked with Top Gun’s young players. He had been giving pitching lessons to Robertson for several years.

Brooks had always told Stephens if he ever got called to The Show no matter where he was or what he was doing he’d be there “in a heartbeat” to watch. Logistics kept him from going to Toronto when Stephens got called up the first time this season, but nothing was going to keep from making it this time.

Brooks’ wife spent the entire championship game on the phone trying to make arrangements. After the team collected the champions’ trophy Friday afternoon, they ditched the beach condo they had for two more days and headed straight home to make an early-morning flight to Chicago and then on to Cincinnati.

They got to Great American Ballpark a couple hours before Stephens’ took the mound, then watched excitedly as the rookie pitched five innings, fought through two rough patches, struck out eight, got his first big-league hit, first two RBIs (that gave him the lead) and his first win.

“I think when he threw that first pitch for a strike we all jumped out of our seats,” Brooks said.

When it was over, Stephens, Brooks and about 50 friends and family who made the trip made their way to the world-famous Montgomery Inn for dinner and celebrated their hometown hero’s success into the wee hours of the following morning.

“I think everybody picked up his bill,” Brooks said. “People there recognized him. He was giving out autographs. It was really something. That will never happen in my lifetime again, I wouldn’t think.”

Brooks may have gone non-stop to share Stephens’ special moment, but it paled in comparison to the Robertson’s experience.

Young Sam knew Stephens had gotten the call and he was anticipating getting back home from the tournament in time to watch his hero and mentor pitch on television. But when the family got to Atlanta his dad, Top Gun coach Shannon Robertson, asked to be dropped off at the airport.

Sam was “shocked,” but father and son left the car with one small bag, found a flight that would get them to Cincinnati and arrived about 90 minutes before first pitch. They had every intention of staying the night and flying back the next day, but after the post-game celebration they ditched it all and caught a ride back with local chiropractor Patrick Harrison, reliving every moment of the week-long experience.

“It’s probably the best time I’ve had in a while,” Sam said. “Two years ago I went to Washington and watched the Nationals play (but) I never got to be so close to the field and get to watch a friend pitch against those advanced players. It was a dream come true.”

Having done it now and seeing what is possible, he’s inspired to big-league dreams.

“I’m going to try to learn from the bigger boys and try to thrive and get better every day and hopefully I’ll make it bigger,” he said.

The two other Top Gun teams held their own at the beach. TG White was ousted in extra innings 6-5 in a game had it won would’ve sent it to play Black in the semifinals. TG Gray went 2-4 with a lineup that featured four 11-year-olds.

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