By BOB YORK
The 14-year-old, 5-foot-2-inch, 110-pound sophomore looked like a poster child for JV ball, but played like he was ready for prime time.
It was yet another of those inevitable looks-can-be-deceiving moments that coaches constantly seem to find themselves struggling to answer and frequently do – whether it be right or wrong – by believing in either their eyes or their instincts. In Rob Dowling’s case, he went with his instincts.
Back in the spring of 2004, Dowling took his Avon Old Farms baseball team on its annual preseason pilgrimage to Florida. Among the rookies making the trip to the Sunshine State that spring was a fresh face sitting atop a diminutive 5-2 frame, “that easily made him the smallest kid on the field, and quite possibly the smallest kid in the entire school,” remembers Dowling.
“He was very athletic, though, had an infectious enthusiasm for the game and his hand-eye coordination was really something special,” added Dowling. “He could hit and had all the tools to be a terrific outfielder. He had the speed to chase down fly balls as well as the arm to throw out base runners. Despite the lack of size, there was just too much potential there to overlook and so we opted to put him on the varsity roster … as our fourth outfielder.“
Following that roster decision, however, Dowling soon found himself facing yet another conundrum.
“I didn’t know if we had a uniform that was small enough to fit him,” quipped Dowling. “At Avon, uniform numbers 1 through 6 are medium size, 7 through 14 are large and 15 through 24 are extra large, In other words, there were no small uniforms to be had. We solved the problem, however. We took the number 4 jersey and tailored it down a bit so it would fit him better. It was all worth it, though. We all knew that once he filled out physically … once his body caught up with his skill level, he could be a tremendous baseball player."
“While at Avon, I’d say he grew about a foot and gained about 100 pounds,” added Dowling, and today, that former scrawny player stands in at 6-3 and 215 pounds and lays claim to one of the biggest names in Major League Baseball. The name is George Springer and if it doesn’t hit home with each and every major league wannabe dotting a New England Prep School Athletic Council baseball roster out there, then it should. He’s one of yours – and he’s living proof that dreams do come true.
Last fall, the former Avon standout was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2017 World Series after helping lead the Houston Astros over the Los Angeles Dodgers in a dramatic seven-game series by slamming a series record-tying five home runs.
“I think what always impressed me the most about George was the way he improved … he got better every game he played,” said Brian Doyle, who was an assistant coach during Springer’s tour of duty at Avon. “Many of your better athletes hit a plateau after a certain amount of time and either level off in their performance or begin to fall back. George, however, just kept getting better and better throughout his Avon career and obviously continued to improve his game at the University of Connecticut, through the minor leagues and now that he’s with the Astros, he’s still improving.”
Indeed. Springer’s World Series MVP Award culminated a series most of his baseball brethren could only dream of. During the seven games, he posted a .379 batting average, hit five home runs, three doubles, posted seven RBI and scored eight runs. His five home runs tied a Major League record for most home runs in one series and his four homers over the final four games set a series record for most consecutive games with a home run.
Those feats were preceded by a regular season that saw Springer earn an All-Star berth, finishing the campaign with a .283 batting average, 34 home runs – which give him 99 through his four-year career – and 85 RBI to push his total to 259. Combined, those stats would later earn him a Silver Slugger Award, which is annually presented to the best offensive player at each position.
Following a 3-1 setback in the series opener, during which he fanned four times while facing Dodger ace lefthander Clayton Kershaw, Springer went 11-for-25 over the last six games. That included the winner-take-all Game 7, that saw him lead the charge to a 5-1 victory with a two-run homer, a double, and two runs scored – and his heroics spread cross-country nearly instantaneously.
“We have a victory bell on the school quadrangle and the students ring it following athletic victories,” explained Doyle, “and it’s also become a way for them to celebrate whenever our alums are successful, as well.”
So, in much the same manner that bell was rung when Jonathan Quick won the Stanley Cup with the Los Angles Kings back in 2012 and 2014, and during the past two springs, when it rang after Nick Bonino won back-to-back Cups with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the nighttime silence in Avon, Conn., was once again shattered when Springer and the Astros prevailed during the early hours of Nov. 2.
“I don’t think that game got over until around midnight or 12:30 in the morning but nevertheless, the kids still got out there and rang the bell,” said Doyle, who is also the school’s dean of students. “Under the circumstances, though, we turned a blind eye to all the commotion."
“During his first season here, we’d insert him into the lineup later in the games to get him some experience,” said Dowling of Springer, who grew up in nearby New Britain and played his freshman season at New Britain High School, “and getting him that experience his sophomore year really paid off for him as well as the team further down the line.”
By further down the line, Dowling was referring to the back-to-back Founders League titles Springer helped deliver for the Winged Beavers his junior and senior years as well as the accompanying All-League selections he earned those two seasons. He was also named Avon’s Most Valuable Player as a junior and the team’s Most Outstanding Player as a senior. Those honors accompanied a career that saw Springer never hit south of .350 and clout 21 home runs, including a league leading nine round trippers his senior year.
Although Springer came to Avon undersized, he didn’t come to Avon overlooked. Despite his diminutive stature, Dowling was well aware of what this recruit could bring to Beaver baseball.
“George came from nearby New Britain, which is about 15 miles from Avon,” said Dowling. “With him living so close to campus, we were well aware that he had been playing at an elite level in his local youth baseball leagues. In addition to playing his freshman year at New Britain High School, he had spent numerous summers playing AAU baseball and what we liked about him most was that he never seemed to meet a challenge he couldn’t beat” – and he hasn’t yet.
Following his graduation from Avon in 2008, Springer, who was eventually taken by the Astros with the 11th overall pick in the 2011 MLB draft, stepped up to the collegiate level at the University of Connecticut. Once there, he was promptly named Big East Conference Rookie of the Year, as well as a Baseball America Freshman All-American First-Team selection after collecting 16 home runs, 57 RBI and a .358 batting average. As a junior, his last year at UConn before being drafted, Springer was named Big East Player of the Year and was selected as a First-Team All American after batting .350, clouting 12 home runs and ringing up 77 RBI. In total, Springer left UConn, with 46 home runs and 196 RBI.
Dowling and Springer have remained close throughout the years and the Avon mentor had the opportunity to catch up with his former charge during the World Series.
“My son (Brian) and I had the opportunity to fly out to Los Angeles to watch games six and seven,” said Dowling. “With George’s schedule, we didn’t see much of him except on the playing field, but it was a tremendous experience to be a part of something like that."
“For Brian, who is 14 now, it was a thrill to be there just for the simple fact that George was always his favorite player when he was at Avon,” added Dowling. “George was always a very outgoing kid … always had a smile on his face and was always great with the kids on campus. You’d often see a bunch of them huddled around him any time of the year as he loved to teach them about the game of baseball.”
That trait of helping out young people hasn’t dissipated over time, either. He participates in a baseball clinic at the Newtown, Conn., Youth Academy for elementary school students in the aftermath of the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting and, as someone who has worked to overcome stuttering in his lifetime, he does a considerable amount of charity work as a spokesman for The Stuttering Association for the Young.
While Dowling was in LA, he had the opportunity to reunite with Springer’s parents. His father, George II, played in the 1976 Little League World Series and later played football at UConn. His mother, Laura, meanwhile, is a former high-level gymnast, so one can easily detect where George’s athletic prowess comes from.
“They’re two tremendous people whom I have known since George’s days at Avon,” said Dowling. “In fact, I can’t ever remember a game George played at Avon … home or away … that they weren’t in attendance. They’re both huge supporters of education and athletics and have been there every step of the way for George.“
As it turned out, there was plenty to celebrate following Game 7. Out in LA, the Springers – mom, dad, George and his sisters, Nicole and Lena – whooped it up at Dodger Stadium. Unfortunately for Dowling, however, he had to cut his visit short and missed out on all the revelry.
“I had an appointment the next morning back at Avon,” explained Dowling, who is the school’s provost, “so we had to leave the game around the sixth inning to catch a red-eye flight back to Connecticut. We were able to watch a bit more of the game at the airport then got the final score while we were on the plane."
As for Springer being named the Series MVP, “I didn’t hear about that until we landed at Bradley (International Airport),” said Dowling.
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