Sullivan: Will East’s Joe Mack putting WNY baseball back on the map

Jerry Sullivan

Williamsville East’s Joe Mack is the hottest Western New York baseball prospect in nearly half a century. He could be a first-round pick in the July draft. (Courtesy of Kathleen Kramer/Williamsville East)

With the truly special ones, you can see it early. Matt Clingersmith remembers working a youth baseball camp several years ago. It was a brutally hot day, so the coaches gave the kids a break. They split them into two groups for a water balloon fight.

“I look over and Joe Mack has a bucket of balls,” said Clingersmith, the head coach at Niagara County Community College. “He’s tossing them to himself and trying to hit them over the fence. You could tell he wanted it more than any other kid in the camp.”

Mack was 10 years old. Even then, he was dead serious about baseball. Water balloons? What could be more fun than popping the ball over the fence? Clingersmith told Joe he’d pitch to him. He could see the kid was going places in the game.

Two years later, at age 12, Mack won the Home Run Derby in Cooperstown. He broke the record of Bryce Harper, a legendary phenom who went on to be a star in the Major Leagues. 

“He hit nine out of 10 home runs,” said his mother, Christina, a physical education teacher in the Sweet Home district. “That was a huge eye-opener! From there, he kept moving up a little bit at a time.”

“Even when he was small, you could see it,” said his father, Allan. 

In seventh grade, Joe batted cleanup for Williamsville East. Yes, the varsity. He played on a Flames team with his older brother, Charlie, who was taken in the sixth round of the MLB draft by the Minnesota Twins in 2018. 

In eighth grade, Joe hit a grand slam against Hamburg to win a playoff game. Clemson, which was recruiting his brother, watched him play in the Perfect Game Select Festival that summer and offered him a scholarship, too. 

So before he even got to high school, Mack was on his way to becoming the hottest Western New York baseball prospect in nearly half a century — what one MLB writer called “a legend written in the winds of time” in a recent scouting report.

On July 11, Mack is projected to be the first WNY player drafted in the first round since 1978, when Matt Winters of Williamsville South went 24th overall to the Yankees. Mock drafts have him going in the 19-25 range, maybe to the Yanks at 20th overall.

Only two other locals have gone in the first round since the MLB draft began in 1965: Marty Cott of Hutch Tech was the third overall pick by Houston in 1968, and Rick Manning from Niagara Falls went second overall to Cleveland in ’72. 

Scouts rave about Mack’s “pop time” — the amount of time between when the ball hits his glove on a steal attempt and when the ball hits the infielder’s glove at second base. (Courtesy of Kathleen Kramer/Williamsville East)

That’s it. Mack, a 6-1, 200-pound senior catcher, is a rare phenomenon in local baseball, which is why about 400 people were on hand Tuesday night at Williamsville East’s modern sports complex for the rivalry game against Will North. 

Mack isn’t lacking for confidence. He says his goal is to make the Hall of Fame, the one in Cooperstown. But he seems remarkably unaffected by the attention swirling around him. Chris Gruarin, the first-year East head coach, said Mack has the calm and equanimity that’s vital in a sport with so much inherent failure.

“He’s never too high, never too low,” Gruarin said, “and we love that about him. It’s a super emotional game. He’s the same level whether the score is 10 runs or one run or tied game. He’s learned that. To be successful at the next level, you have to do that, playing every day.”

Mack said he doesn’t talk about baseball much in school. Bragging was never allowed in his family. His parents taught him the virtue of humility, which is well-suited for baseball. 

“It’s either stay humble or be humbled,” Joe said. “It comes from my parents and my brother. This is the best game ever invented, I can tell you that. Just being able to play this game is awesome. There’s no bigger thrill, and if you’re not having fun, you’re not playing it right.

“Being around your teammates, having fun, talking about the game. Just hitting, fielding, throwing, catching, everything you can think of on the field is just the greatest.”

The scouts love Mack’s “next-level” power and his raw athletic ability. Last summer — still looking to put on weight after a March bout with COVID-19 — he hit .400 with six home runs for the East Cobb Astros, an elite Georgia team that performs in front of Major League scouts. 

Mack’s defensive skills behind the plate really catch the eyes of the scouts. One scout, Joe Doyle, said Mack’s transfer on throws to second is uncommonly quick for a high schooler. He said Mack’s natural athleticism “jumps out in his actions behind the plate.”

On a recent afternoon at East, there were about 20 MLB scouts gathered around, watching Mack take batting practice, holding up their cell phones or writing down notes. 

“He’s worthy of the attention,” said Ray Montgomery, an Angels scout who pitched briefly for Houston in the bigs. “He certainly had a great summer and put himself in a good spot. He’s no secret. He’s bounced around with those (elite) teams and is well-versed in the community of baseball.”

Scouts are universal in their respect for kids who play multiple sports in high school. Mack lives for baseball, but he also played basketball and volleyball at Will East. 

“They like my work ethic a lot,” Mack said. “They like my natural ability, my athleticism and just who I am as a person. That’s probably the biggest thing they’re looking for. Obviously, raw talent, but then who you are as a person.”

“They ask how much you love the sport, stuff about my family, stuff about me, about other sports … learning a little more about me and unraveling who I am, piece by piece.”

Montgomery, who spends about 200 days a year on the road, said most of the scouting work is already done by this point in a player’s high school career. Watching Mack play with East Cobb showed them how he measured up against elite opposition.

“When he faces the better competition around those caliber players in the summer, then he has to step back in his high school season,” Montgomery said. “So it’s a little challenging.”

Mack struck out twice against Williamsville North, seeming well ahead of the baseball. At one point, students along the North side were chanting “overrated!” It was a rare tableau for a local high school baseball game. Joe Mack’s game was an event, with about five other Division I prospects on the field.

Gruarin, who was an assistant coach at Will North under Max Zimmerman and teaches with him at North, said Mack might have been pressing a bit in that rivalry game.

“Yeah, a little bit,” he said. “There’s a lot going on in the moment with the cameras and people and this and that. We had 10-12 scouts lined up along the fence, watching his every move. He’s an 18-year-old kid. But he’s totally fine. If there’s anybody I believe in, it’s him.”

“If I can just eat, sleep, breathe baseball, that’s just a dream come true,” Mack says. (Courtesy of Kathleen Kramer/Williamsville East)

The Mack baseball brand is something to believe in. Allan and Christina produced three elite players: Charles, 21, is now in low-A ball in Fort Myers. The Twins have converted him to catcher, a cerebral position that’s obviously well-suited to the family. 

Christy, the middle child, was a softball star who earned a scholarship to Hartford. They say she was capable of playing baseball on the boys team. She’s since retired from the game. Then there’s the baby, Joe, an old soul who loves baseball and gets a little hot when people criticize it as boring.

“They don’t understand,” Joe said. “Baseball has lessons that teach you about life. They don’t know what the game is about. This game has so much more meaning. People see it as hitting a ball with a stick. It’s way more than that.”

The love of competition derives from his parents. Allan played high school baseball and was a pitcher in MUNY ball until he was 50 years old. Softball at 50 is one thing. Striking out men 25-30 years younger in hardball?

“Oh, he threw,” Christina said. “We went to Arizona about three years in a row.”

The kids got some of that athletic ability from their mother, too, who emphasized the importance of academics and sports.

“Hey, I’m a Phys Ed teacher,” she said with a laugh. “I played everything. I played volleyball, softball, basketball and soccer. Then I played volleyball at Cortland State.”

Christina stayed home for four years after having her children. Then it was time for Allan, an independent contractor, to spend four years at home.

“He was Mr. Mom,” she said. “He put a bat in their hand, a golf club in their hand. He played with them.”

“That’s all it was,” Allan said. “Athletics.”

“We were talking about this last night,” Christina said. “We had games in the basement. Allan would say, ‘If it hit the wall, it was a single, so far up was a double, up here it was a home run. He played with them. I give him a lot of credit. He always played.

“I was too tired to play. Phys Ed teacher – I didn’t want to play at home!”

Allan said there were times when he wondered if he was pushing Joe too hard, dragging him to practice his hitting, throwing and fielding. 

“But over the last couple of years, it’s all been self-motivated,” he said. “And that’s when he really took off.”

Joe learned a lot from watching his older brother. They both bat left, throw right. Now they’re both catching. He watched him in the recruiting process. He visited Clemson with Charlie and fell in love with the place. Charlie passed on Clemson, signing with the Twins for around $500,000 after being drafted 184th overall.

“I know that number one, he loves waking up and playing baseball, every day,” Joe said. “It’s his favorite thing to do. It’s obviously my favorite thing to do. If I can just eat, sleep, breathe baseball, that’s just a dream come true.”

The question is where he’ll do it next. If the projections are right, and Mack is drafted in the 20-25 range, the signing bonus figures to be around $3 million. That would require signing right out of high school and eschewing the college route. 

It’s not about the money for Mack and his family. But that’s a lot of money. 

“Well, if he goes that early,” Allan said. “But if it goes into the second or third round, you don’t know how things unfold.”

“We don’t assume anything,” Christina said. “Whatever happens, happens. We’re very happy with what he’s done so far. That’s all we can say.”

Christina sees it as a choice between two dreams. She’d love for Joe to go to college. He loves Clemson. But playing in the big leagues is his life’s goal. Either way, he’ll get there.

“Three million is great,” Joe said. “But going to play for a team is my No. 1 goal. It’s the thrill of being able to go and play on a team. I would just love to go and play baseball.”

It will be tough to say no to a large signing bonus and the status that comes with being a first-round pick. You get the impression that Joe will take the same route as Charles if the draft projections are right.

But there’s a very good chance that come July 11, Western New York will see a kid taken in the first round of the MLB draft for the first time since Jimmy Carter was President. 

Gruarin only wishes he had Joe for another year. Imagine getting your first head coaching job and inheriting the best baseball player to come along locally in more than four decades.

“I’m extremely lucky to coach a kid with that talent level,” Gruarin said. “Joe is a great kid, and he’s the real deal. He’s got it all, he really does. I don’t think we’ll see anyone like him again.”

Jerry Sullivan is an award-winning journalist who joined the News 4 team in 2020 after three decades as a sports columnist at The Buffalo News. See more of his work here.

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