Homestead baseball coach Ernie Millard has already tipped his hat in respect and awe so many times this season to NOW Newspapers All-Suburban co-Player of the Year Kevin James.
So much so, in fact, that the Whitefish Bay WBCA All-Stater and Major League Baseball draft choice may feel close enough to the Highlanders mentor to just walk right into Millard's house and help himself to the contents of the refrigerator.
Though Millard's wife may have an objection to that.
But in all seriousness, Millard does have one very earnest piece of advice for the flame-throwing Blue Duke lefthander, a ninth-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Rays with a scholarship offer from Boston College on the table:
Take the money.
One-time money offer?
Though James could not confirm it last week, rumors have been running that the value of ninth-round MLB contracts could run anywhere from $375,000 to $500,000. James said that should he sign, the Rays have agreed to pay for his education should his pro career not pan out.
With that mind, Millard became emphatic.
"The education will be there," he said. "The odds of that kind of money being there again (should he go to college and be taken in the draft again) are poor. I only hope the best for Kevin and I'm certain that whatever decision he and his family make will be in his best interest.
"But I think he would be well served to seriously think about signing," Millard said.
"I'm still waiting on the offer," said James in a phone conversation last week. "I've been texting with the BC coach and we talk on the phone a few times a week. It would be a partial ride (to go to college)."
As opposed to the ride of a lifetime should he choose to accept whatever offer the Rays come up with.
Winning followed return
It would be heady stuff for the lanky 6-foot-4-inch junior, who didn't break 90 miles an hour until earlier this season and who didn't really make his name until a Showcase Event in Kenosha his junior year. After that, he said, "the phones started to ring (from colleges)."
James and fellow MLB draftee outfielder Charlie Markson (44th round of the Detroit Tigers) led Bay to a WIAA sectional and a 27-11 final record. He put up astonishing numbers despite missing two weeks worth of starts (though he continued to bat from the designated hitter's spot) because of a tweaked ankle.
And when he came back against Millard's Highlanders early in July, he displayed professional-level skills, dominating the eventual state-bound Homestead team with a blazing fastball and a fast-diving slider. The 17-strikeout 3-0 road victory under the lights was literally a "man among boys" sort of effort.
It was also the platform that James used to lead the Blue Dukes to a 15-2 record down the stretch that all but erased a miserable mid-season slump that started around the time of James' injury.
To Blue Dukes coach Jay Wojcinski, none of it was coincidence.
"Whether he's hitting or pitching or making plays in the outfield, he can do absolutely whatever he wants to do," Wojcinski said. "He has all the talent in the world coupled with a great work ethic. Hopefully, we'll all be buying tickets to watch him play someday."
Host to scouts, colleges
James said he and his family have been hosts to many sitdowns in the past year with scouts and college recruiters in their living room but he noted that he could hardly wait to get those done and get back onto the field to play with the same kids he's taken the field with since he was 9.
He loved being the guy everyone counted on.
"It's a fun spot to be in," he said.
His Bay story ended July 24 back at his beloved Cahill Field when the Blue Dukes lost in the WIAA sectional finals to Homestead. He was not on the mound in the final, having put the clamps on Port Washington in the semifinals earlier that day. He also finished the day with seven RBIs in two games in a spectacular display of his vastly underrated bat, which will go largely unused should he turn pro (the Rays are an American League team).
After the Homestead loss, and in something of a metaphor for the difficulty of deciding his future, James' caught my eye as I was walking over to talk to Wojcinski. I cast a kind of "Great day anyway, man" look his way.
James smiled thinly back at me, disappointment on his face, and then shrugged his shoulders in a sort of "What can you do?" manner.
And in his case, whatever he does decide to do - college or pro - it will likely be the right decision.
Though we already know what Millard thinks.
The Kevin James File
WHAT: Bay baseball star named NOW Newspapers co-Player of the Year
OTHER HONORS: Wisconsin Baseball Coaches Association first-team all-state, Louisville Slugger State Player of the Year, ninth-round draft choice of the Tampa Bay Rays.
THE PERKS OF FAME: Constantly having a speed gun mounted behind the backstop whenever he was pitching. He reached 95 miles an hour in at least one clocking.
THOUGHTS ON FELLOW PLAYER OF THE YEAR J.T. SCHNEIDER OF OAK CREEK: "I played with him this spring. He's a really good second baseman. He shows great hustle and really gets the job done."