Young Fort Mill slugger to train with national development team

dthackham@fortmilltimes.comJuly 3, 2013 

— He’s not old enough to try out for his future high school, Nation Ford, but Keith Cooke III has a very specific plan for how he’d like his baseball career to progress:

After four years leading the Falcons in wins over other local high schools, Keith wants to attend the University of North Carolina, play centerfielder for the Tar Heels and then get drafted by either the Atlanta Braves, the Cincinnati Reds or the Boston Red Sox.

“It’s what I’ve always wanted to do for my entire life,” Keith said. “One time I went to UNC when I was eight and I got the entire team to sign my hat. I love it.”

By the end of the summer, the 13-year-old may be one big step closer to his dream.

He’s attending an invitation-only improvement session July 31-Aug 3 led by The Baseball Factory, a program that trains and builds young prospects into college products. He’ll be in Vero Beach, Fla., former spring training home of the Los Angeles Dodgers, pitching, catching, conditioning and learning from some of the most talented young players from across the country.

“This is all brand new to me,” Cooke said. “I never knew about it until they sent me a letter in the mail in February. I’m very confident that the camp will make me a better player.”

After attending a tryout in Greenville, the rising seventh-grader was invited to come to Florida, to the same ballpark where Jackie Robinson once trod.

“It’s a pretty significant thing, getting to go to a camp from The Baseball Factory,” said his father, Keith Cooke II, who was also his son’s coach with the Pineville, N.C., Majors Blue Jays recreation team.

“He was begging us to take him to the tryouts. His speed is one of his best attributes, and he’s got great range.”

The younger Cooke led the Blue Jays with 18 RBIs and 23 stolen bases while logging a .449 batting average. He currently plays for the U-12 Pineville All-Star team.

If the young prodigy can continue his impressive form, he can break a long-time family record: playing at the collegiate level. Cooke’s mother, Theresa Cooke, was a softball player for Springfield Catholic Central High School in Ohio, while his father was a multi-sport athlete at Charlotte Latin in the mid-1980s.

“Keith is a far better baseball player than I was at his age,” his dad said. “When Keith started playing, they’d have him be in centerfield and he thought it was a punishment at first. But now he knows his dad played there and now he loves it.”

The four-day camp costs around $2,500 to attend, according to the Cooke family, and has branches in Cape Cod, Mass., Baltimore and Los Angeles. . Keith’s been reaching out to his friends and family to help defray the cost as he and his parents prepare to spend the early August days in an on-site villa in the old “Dodgertown.”

“I’m a player who needs to improve every day, and I want to help my friends improve as well,” he said. “We can all be a team to win games.”

As for now, Cooke is doing his own brand of conditioning and constant fielding throughout July to get in shape for the camp and another upcoming recreation season. He’s already sizing up his competition. Some of his friends are hoping to play with rival high schools once they’re eligible.

“I hope so,” he said. “That way, we can beat them.”

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