Recently, USA Baseball’s 2023 15U National Team went undefeated and won the 2023 International Friendly Series title in Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic. Two-time alumnus Grady Emerson played a huge role for Team USA in capturing the championship, both with his glove and bat. Emerson is one of two returning players from last year’s squad which won gold at the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC) U-15 Baseball World Cup, and the power hitter quickly showed why he earned that starting shortstop position and second-year spot on the team.
The 6-foot-2-inch Texan was one of many Team USA players to leave a lasting impression in the Dominican dirt, as Emerson collected a hit in each game he started, racked up the most total bases with 11, and was one of two Americans to homer over the span of five games. On the flip side, Emerson maintained a perfect fielding percentage and led Team USA in assists with nine.
Emerson had the chance to sit down with USABaseball.com and talk about his experience playing for Team USA, the invaluable lessons he has been able to take away, and a pair of clutch plays that will live in his mind forever.
Q: How was your experience during Training Camp fighting to make that 20-man roster spot?
A: “It was like a dream come true. Luckily, I was able to make it last year, so it was a pretty cool experience getting to make it twice. Training Camp was just a grind. It was everybody going after those 20 spots, so it was just a really good way for me to learn to compete against the other top players in this country. It has impacted so many parts of my life, and it was just a blessing being able to be a part of all those competitors and all those great things.”
Q: Given that you are a returning player, can you talk about how you embraced a leadership role this year?
A: “It was definitely a way for me to see what the “USA way” is. Getting to be behind guys like Coy James and Ethan Holliday last year, I was able to see how they impacted the team, winning or losing, and learn from them. It was cool getting to hear the pep talks and see the things that they did outside of the game, and have been able to incorporate them into my life. Those guys were so good at it, they knew how to lead a team. They led us to a gold medal, and I knew that if I could do the things they did, that hopefully I could lead the team this year. Some of those guys might have been nervous or anxious to be there, but I was blessed to be able to help them through that and just show them I was in their position last year. You just have to do what you can do and know you’re there for a reason, and I think that was probably the biggest impact that those guys had on me last year. They helped show me the way.”
Q: How was your experience with this year’s 15U National Team?
A: “It’s definitely been a once in a lifetime experience; I can’t think of a better thing to do than wear U-S-A across my chest and play against all these other great countries. It's pretty cool going back to school and everybody being like, ‘Hey, you played for Team USA, that is pretty freaking cool.’ I mean I got to go to the Dominican Republic and play against the best kids in the country who hopefully, if things keep going well, I'll be able to see down the road in the future in the pros, minor leagues, or wherever the game takes me. It's been the best experience of my life, no doubt.”
Q: What was your favorite memory of the trip?
A: “Probably just playing that championship game, because even though it wasn't like last year where it was for a gold medal at the World Cup, I felt like it was still a grind, and everybody wanted the same thing. I think my favorite memory was us coming through that sixth inning putting up runs, and the energy we had isn’t something you can recreate anywhere else. That was my favorite part, and then obviously dog piling with everybody at the end. I think that's everybody's favorite part when you win a championship, you get to be in the dog pile and there's water being thrown everywhere. That's what you live for.”
Q: Speaking of that championship game, that was one of the more tightly contested games that you guys played in, and you played a huge part in that win when you hit that three-run home run in the sixth to put your team up by three. Can you take me through that sixth inning?
A: “It was definitely one of those at bats where before you get up there you're preparing yourself to be in a big spot, but knowing that there’s no reason to feel pressure because it’s just a game. You’re telling yourself to not do too much, be yourself, and do what you can do. So, it started off with a fast ball for a ball, and then change up for a strike followed by another strike. At that point, I just remember turning around, looking at Brady Harris like, ‘I got you. Don't worry, I'm not going to go down without a fight.’
"Then just getting that middle high, middle inside pitch, hammering that thing and seeing it go over the wall got me fired up. When I did the turn to everybody I knew it was over. That was just so much fun. I was just in the moment, just enjoying every piece of that moment, because it's going to be in my memories forever. It was definitely one of the coolest things I've ever done in my baseball career so far.”
Q: In game three, you made an incredible play at shortstop to keep the then no-hitter intact. What is something Coach (Derek) Simmons has taught to maintain a high level of defensive play?
A: “We did a lot of drills on reading balls and knowing the runner. Right before that play, when he came out of the dugout and said we’ve got a yellow runner, I was playing back a little trying to give myself time. Then they guy hit that chopper and it fell in the sun, but Simmons always told me, ‘You've got a strong enough arm, so know your body and just sit back so you don't have to rush things.’
“Brody (Jindra) tipped it off his glove and it came right to me, but since I took Coach Simmons’ advice and just sat back, I was in the right position to make the right play at the right time. That was pretty special because I was talking to Josiah (Morris) about the no-hitter, and I looked at him after I made that play knowing that it's still going. Without Coach Simmons’ advice I probably would have charged that ball and I could have bobbled it or missed it completely, so that was a pretty cool play for me to make.”
Q: Is there something a coach has said or taught that you’ll take away from the diamond and apply it to your life?
A: “Since I was on the team last year, I've built a really good connection with Coach (Rob) Shabansky. The way he's able to calm me down, and the way we're able to connect is huge. He always tells me to just be myself, that I’ve got the tools and everything I need, it's just my mind getting in the way. He reminds me that I have to overcome that mental challenge and just do what I can do. I think that's what's really helped me become a better player, because sometimes in those big moments or situations, I tend to get in my head. In those situations, rather than thinking about the negative things I could do, I try to think of the things that I am going to do positively. I think that's what really helped me take a big leap in my game so far.”