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They drive east through the traffic-choked arteries of the Atlanta metroplex, past the strip malls and car dealerships, through the tall pines and emerald hills of Stone Mountain and finally onto the winding roads that take them through Gwinnett County, with its barbecue shacks, pet crematoriums and hunting depots (TWO-FOR-ONE DEER PROCESSING HERE!). They're headed to Loganville (pop. 10,601) and the neighboring town of Grayson (pop. 2,666), each home to one of the top two high school baseball players in America.
They make this drive, the baseball men who've heard the tall tales, pored over the outlandish stats, studied the homemade YouTube clips of the rival centerfielders who are surefire top 10 picks in next week's major league draft. They come to see Clint Frazier of Loganville High, a redheaded, fullback-thick slugger. "The best high school power hitter who's come through the state of Georgia," says former minor leaguer Brad Bouras, now a coach in the area, "and I challenge anyone who says otherwise."
They also come to see Austin Meadows of Grayson High, another five-tool talent—tall and strapping, with blond hair and a lefthanded swing that's as sweet as a swig of Southern tea, he could be Roy Hobbs in a remake of The Natural. Says Cubs scout Keith Lockhart, "When he steps off a bus, you think, Now this kid looks like a major league player."
This season Frazier and Meadows faced off under an endless blue sky for one game only in March, a showdown that had the buildup of a Vegas title fight. ("We had the date circled back in January," says Lockhart.) Loganville High added makeshift bleachers to accommodate the crowd that stood, eight, nine, 10 deep. Kids from youth leagues across the state spilled out of buses. Major league scouts, nearly a hundred in all, scattered in the stands with their dark sunglasses and caps pulled low. Front office executives—Cubs president Theo Epstein, Astros general manager Jeff Luhnow and Red Sox G.M. Ben Cherington among them—rolled into a nearby middle school parking lot in their rental cars.
Amid the din of duck calls (they were distributed to fans at the gate) and shouting from a camo-clad crowd that made the Cameron Crazies seem sedate—an entire section of Loganville students was threatened with ejection before the game for their excessive heckling of the visiting team—Meadows went 0 for 1 with a walk and was hit by a pitch. Frazier homered twice to lead a 14--4 rout; his second bomb sailed over the electrical lines past the leftfield wall and disappeared into the oak trees. "A 500-foot shot, easily" says Loganville assistant coach Bran Mills. Adds Lockhart, "Any scout there would say that was the farthest home run they've ever seen in a high school game."
Frazier and Meadows are longtime friends, former travel teammates and products of a new Georgia baseball machine that is producing future big league All-Stars more efficiently than any other state's. But the story of how two kids who grew up 10 minutes from each other and went on to become the two best high school hitters in the country doesn't begin on the fields of Gwinnett County. It begins two decades earlier, at a stadium that no longer exists.
Gwinnett County, just northeast of Atlanta, is home not just to Frazier and Meadows but also to several other potential early-round picks in this year's draft. (That pair could be followed by Parkview High outfielder Josh Hart in the second or third round.) Scouts joke that the event should be held not at the MLB Network studios in Secaucus, N.J., but at a shooting range in Loganville. It's not just Gwinnett, though. The rural counties south of Atlanta have also produced a staggering crop of talent in recent years, including reigning National League MVP Buster Posey (Lee County High, drafted in 2008), Cardinals ace Adam Wainwright (Glynn Academy, Brunswick County, 2000) and last year's No. 2 choice, Twins minor league outfielder Byron Buxton (Appling County High). And Cobb County, north of Atlanta, is the home of East Cobb Baseball, an elite youth program and a sort of Hogwarts for ballplayers that claims outfielder Jason Heyward and All-Star catcher Brian McCann of the Braves, among others, as alums.
Georgia's baseball renaissance began two decades ago at Fulton County Stadium, where a franchise that had underperformed for the better part of the 1980s suddenly played to packed houses of tomahawk-chopping fans. As general manager, John Schuerholz was the architect of teams that dominated the National League from 1991—the year Atlanta went from last place to within one game of winning the World Series—to the mid-2000s. "When we started winning, it awakened the spirit of baseball in this community," says Schuerholz, now the team's president, sitting in the Braves' dugout at Turner Field, their home since 1997. "This territory now is as aggressively scouted as Florida, Texas and California. Those were always the hotbed states. And then this talent source awakened and continues to grow and expand. It started in the immediate Atlanta area, and now it's all throughout the state."
Early in the Braves' run, high school and college coaches started telling Schuerholz's scouts that "it was [suddenly] exciting to be an amateur baseball player—to be the next Chipper Jones instead of a football player in what's always been a football-centric community," says Schuerholz. The G.M. had an epiphany: "I began to tell [then scout] Paul Snyder and [scouting director] Roy Clark that nobody—nobody—should beat us to a baseball player in the state of Georgia."
Aggressive scouting for nearby prospects overlooked by the other major league teams became a key to Atlanta's success. "For a good four or five years, when we had exclusivity on the area," says Schuerholz, "we had a larger percentage of Georgia players in our pipeline." Seven of the Braves' 23 first-round picks since 2000 have been Georgia-bred, from Wainwright (he was traded to St. Louis as a minor leaguer in 2003) to outfielder Jeff Francoeur (drafted out of Parkview High in Gwinnett County in 2002; after five seasons with Atlanta he was traded to the Mets in 2009) to Heyward (Henry County High, 2007) to minor league pitcher Lucas Sims (Brookwood High, Gwinnett County, 2012).