Paul Konerko might have been one of the youngest on the field, but it never felt that way.
"When I was playing in Double-A they were teaching stuff that I had been doing since I was a sophomore in high school," Konerko said Monday from the Arizona Biltmore hotel in Phoenix before the All-Star workout. "I always felt that I had an advantage because I had a high school coach that didn't let you slide on anything."
Konerko has Jerry Dawson to thank for that. The two still keep in touch, have lunch during the offseason, and have a much different relationship than the usual high school coach and pro athlete.
While Konerko is making his fifth All-Star Game appearance, it is the first in his home state of Arizona. Among the sold-out crowd at Chase Field will be Dawson, who retired from coaching after the 2009-10 season after leading Chaparral (Scottsdale, Ariz.)
to the postseason in 33 of the 34 seasons he coached the Firebirds.
"I was so prepared to play at the pro level because he taught the game the right way," said Konerko, who had committed to Arizona State before he signed with the Dodgers after being selected 13th overall in 1994. "I was learning to be a professional before I really even knew what it meant to be one."
The rosters of the American and National teams for the 2011 All-Star Game are filled with players who had similar experiences with their high school coaches.
Not all relationships are rosin bags and cracker jacks by any means, and some – like St. Louis' Matt Holliday – had family members who had been through the process to help guide them.
But it was pretty clear that a good, connected and knowledgeable high school coach can make the transition to pro or college ball go a bit smoother for those just barely removed from graduation. That was definitely the case for Cincinnati second baseman Brandon Phillips.
"I thought you went straight to the major leagues like the NBA and NFL when you are drafted," said Phillips, who was coached by Greg Goodwin at Redan (Stone Mountain, Ga.)
. "I had no idea about the minor leagues. My coach had my back. He got me ready for pro ball because I wasn't sure what to expect after I got drafted (in the second round by Montreal in 1999)."
Holliday's father, Tom, was an assistant or head coach with Oklahoma State for more than 20 years and even played a year of pro ball after being drafted in 1975 by Pittsburgh. It gave Holliday an in-house consultant when he chose to sign with Colorado out of Stillwater (Okla.)
after being taken in the seventh round of 1998 draft instead of attending OSU, where would have played football and baseball.
"He knew the whole process and it gave me an idea of what to expect when I went to my first year of pro ball," Matt Holliday said. "I was lucky. A lot of people have to figure it out for themselves and don't have someone they can lean on."
Before Jay Bruce was selected as the 12th overall pick in the 2005 draft by the Cincinnati Reds, he played for Kevin McDonald at West Brook (Beaumont, Texas)
. McDonald played in the Brewers organization and knew that Bruce had a bright future but never treated him differently than any of his other teammates.
"He molded me but also let me grow up," Bruce said. "As a mentor, as a coach, as a friend he has been there for me in all aspects of my life. He's a great guy and taught me the game. I was with him starting at 14 years old and those are impressionable moments of your life and he taught me the right way to do things."
As much as McDonald tried to prepare the future All-Star for his first stop in the rookie league in 2005 as an 18-year-old, it was still an eye-opener.
"He told me what to expect but it is one of those things you have to experience for yourself," Bruce said. "Until you strike out in a key situation before getting on the bus for a long ride to the next town it is hard to understand what the daily grind is really about."Jason P. Skoda, a former Arizona Republic and current Ahwatukee Foothill News staff writer, is a 15-year sports writing veteran. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or 480-272-2449.