We recently spoke to Todd Isaacs (link), the brainchild behind the Don’t Blink Home Run Derby in Paradise, which brought an impressive collection of minor leaguers together in the Bahamas’ first-ever professional baseball event. The inaugural contest was won by Bo Bichette, who best fellow top prospects Nick Gordon and Bahamian Lucius Fox in an impressive display of power, but it was perhaps the vision of Isaacs for the islands’ baseball development that shone brightest. Isaacs is part of an explosion of young talent from the island nation and we spoke with the Indians’ farmhand about baseball in the Bahamas, as well as the nation’s connexion to Great Britain Baseball. For those who prefer audio, it is available on our SoundCloud channel (link).
Before its independence in 1973, the Bahamas were part of the British Empire and remain part of the Commonwealth today. Baseball has had a presence in the Bahamas since the 1950s, with Andre Rodgers signing the country’s first-ever professional contract in 1954, but after initial growth, the sport is only just entering its second period of sustained progress. In 2012, as Isaacs pointed out, there were only two professionals from the island nation, Albert Cartwright and Antoan Richardson, both of whom played for Great Britain in the last two WBC qualifying rounds. In the last three years, however, there has been a flood of Bahamian talent, with 20 players in the minor leagues and many more developping in high schools and universities.
According to Isaacs, each island has various leagues, but only about ‘twenty percent’ of the populace is aware of the sport. The fleet-footed outfielder started playing tee-ball in the Freedom Farm League when he was three and says that most players now do start young and continue with the sport.
‘When I was young…we had a lot of players that were really good, but we didn’t have that avenue where kids could sign internationally, which we do have now. A lot of kids couldn’t afford to go off to school like I did, to have the opportunity to sign a professional contract like I did. [With] the core of guys—myself, Anfernee Seymour, and Champ Stuart, and a few other guys who are among the earliest guys who started signing—the younger guys really started to see what was possible. And now we have guys signing [internationally] and in the U.S. draft, so we have both avenues that we are really pumping kids into.’
I asked him why there had been a such an explosion of growth recently. ‘First of all, it is a credit to all the players. We all understand that we don’t have the best facilities, but we don’t let it be an excuse. We have to give credit to the coaches that are there in the Bahamas that are pushing everyone to succeed, making sure they have the right knowledge and the right opportunities at their fingertips to get seen and to get their names out there. It’s a credit to a lot of things.
‘It’s a credit to who we are as Bahamian people—our pride and our desire to succeed. I just have to give a lot of credit to the guys before my time, Antoan Richardson and Albert Cartwright and the guys before them. They gave us the blueprint and fortunately for us, we are a lot more talented than they were at our ages. For them to give us tips and secrets as to what to do, really helped us and really jumped-started our careers in pro baseball.’
According to Isaacs, one of the reasons why the derby was held on the beach is because of a lack of an international-standard field. This deficit is holding back the development of the sport in the Bahamas, he believes, but his vision shines through here as well.
‘The facilities aren’t the best and the best field in the Bahamas is in the prison grounds! The fields that we work out aren’t really the best at all, so it’s hard for us to really train at home in the Bahamas because we don’t have the necessary facilities or gyms to work out in. It’s a goal of mine to start that change and have conversations with people who can make that change.’
Despite his lofty goals, Isaacs is only 160 games into his career and just 21 years of age. He played 2017 for the Lake County Captains, Cleveland’s Midwest League farm team. Known for his speed, Isaacs set career highs in most offensive categories during his first year in a full-season league, slugging nine home runs and stealing 18 bases in what amounted to little more than half a season because of injuries. It is clear he is no longer the same player that was drafted in the 19th Round of the 2015 Draft and labelled by ESPN Radio as the fastest player at any level of collegiate baseball (link).
‘The number one thing I can say to anyone who aspires to be a professional baseball player is you will be living out of a duffel bag, you are always on the road. You have to learn how to comfortable being uncomfortable at a young age because it is different cities, you are always on the bus; different stadiums, different amounts of crowds. That’s the one thing I will never change: to stay constant, to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Adjusting to always being on the bus, meals you’re getting fed, being emotionally, physically, and mentally locked in to what you want to achieve.’
Isaacs certainly looked comfortable in his debut on the international stage in September 2016, starting in right field for Great Britain. In GB’s near-upset of Israel on day one, Isaacs had an RBI-single and stolen base against 16-year major league veteran Jason Marquis, a sacrifice fly against Josh Zeid, and a double to spark an unsuccessful rally in the ninth. All told, he hit .214 and drove in three runs in four games, forming an extremely athletic all-Bahamian outfield with Champ Stuart and Antoan Richardson.
‘We didn’t really care much about who we were playing or what the next jersey was, it was just a time for us to have fun together. We weren’t nervous or scared or any of that. We came out of the gates hot the first game and we stayed hot against Pakistan and Brazil.’
I asked Isaacs about the composition of the squad, which featured eight Bahamian position players. He observed that Albert Cartwright and Antoan Richardson were the reasons why we had so many Bahamians on that team. Both played in the 2012 WBC qualifiers as well, in which Britain upset the Czech Republic but lost badly to Canada and Germany. The 2016 squad benefitted from the increased number of Bahamian members, as all played regularly, combining to hit .298 with a .447 slugging percentage against much more experienced pitching.
‘It was cool because the first thing I had to do when I got there was learn to sing “God Save the Queen”! We sang it in Times Square and I think that solidified the fact that it was Great Britain we were playing for and not the Bahamas. For us, it was special because we got to play for a country we weren’t raised in and we had fans pulling for us who don’t really even know us, just that we were a British territory once. It was super special just to have a country’s name written on the front of our jerseys and just to play for a lot of people—Great Britain being a country just like the Bahamas that is trying to bring exposure to baseball—so it was like playing for the same goals [for both countries].
‘To make it as far as we did in the programme’s short span and competing in the international stage, it was incredible to be part of that group. I think that the next go-round we will make it a lot further and [even] more special.’
As Isaacs pointed out, the Bahamians were recruited for a country in which they had not spent time and with which they did not identify. The Bahamas has not fielded a national team since the 2006 Central American and Caribbean Games and Pan-American Games qualifying tournaments, yet now features enough professionals and collegiate players to more than fill a roster. I wanted to know whether this created any sort of conflict in which Bahamian players felt that they ought to be allowed to compete for their own country. Isaacs was firm in his reply.
‘I don’t think there’s any conflict for us because we are still young in the baseball sense and we don’t really have a team that would be able to last long in a tournament of that magnitude. We have a lot of position players that we have been breeding of the last few years and a few pitchers that are professionals right now and a few that will come, but it isn’t enough for us to feed a national team at that level.
‘Great Britain has been in it for the past few years and they have the DNA of what to expect and what we need. [For] all the former territories, I think the best chance for us would be to play for Great Britain to try to bring a championship back. For us, there is no conflict, we absolutely love Great Britain and we love the love that they showed us.’
On the other hand, that does not mean that Isaacs and others do not dream about donning a journey with ‘Bahamas’ written across the front.
‘We talk about it all the time. It is cool to play for a country where you were born and raised, because you wear your flag on your jersey. It will be special when we can suit up in Team Bahamas and represent the Bahamas, but until then, we’re all Team GB and we’re pulling for Team GB and whenever the next opportunity presents itself, we’ll be representing Team GB.’
Though Isaacs was enthused about the possibility of a Bahamian team one day, he left no doubt about his feelings towards his time with Team GB.
‘Playing for Great Britain was one of the coolest things I’ve ever done in my life. I have all of my GB gear, my jersey and stuff, framed in my room in my house. That was the first time in my career where it meant a lot more than playing for the Indians or playing for myself. It was super special to me and it reminded me of a good time playing with a lot of my good friends that I grew up with, with one goal, to win a championship for Great Britain.
‘I am definitely looking forward to doing it again in the near future because the love that the coaching staff and all the Great Britain fans showed us was tremendous. I felt like I was born in the UK, basically! To represent something that was bigger than myself and bigger than my career was super special to me.’
Lest there be any doubt that Isaacs enjoyed his time with Team GB, I asked what his teammates at Lake County had asked him about his experience and what he told them.
‘A lot of my teammates were watching the Classic and knew that I was going to play for Great Britain. My organisation, they were watching as well. All of them wants to play for US the or their country one day, because every baseball player watches the World Baseball Classic and sees how exciting it is.
‘I told them that it was something I wish they could all experience one day because it is not like going out there and trying to develop every day, you’re actually playing for something that’s much bigger than yourself. You’re playing for a country that is really backing you and supporting you one thousand percent. Playing for Great Britain was one of the coolest things, because they aren’t known as a baseball powerhouse, but we definitely shifted that idea with how we performed in the WBC Qualifier. A lot of these teams we’re going to play in the near future are in trouble!
Isaacs has not been informed by the parent club where he will be assigned this year, though it is likely that between injuries and inconsistent offensive performance (.224 average and a 12/103 walk-to-strikeout ratio) that he will return to the Captains. As far as he is concerned, that is irrelevant: ‘I don’t really want to have an idea, I just want to go to spring training and compete because that is what spring training is all about: competing with the guy next to you for a job.’
Though he may not be thinking about the season ahead, Isaacs allowed us to break the news that there are plans for another Home Run Derby in Paradise next year, tentatively scheduled for January 5. With an entire year to follow up on an event that came out of nowhere to become far more successful than even Isaacs had dreamed, there is no doubt that the second showcase will be even more impressive than the first.
‘It was really humbling for me to be in the position I am, early in my career, to make something like that happen at the magnitude it did. It is all for the betterment of my brothers who play professional baseball from the Bahamas and the one that will follow in the coming years. We never had the opportunity to play in front of our people back home and…all of us want to give back to the community and be a positive image and a positive voice.’