2019 CRCBL Pitcher of the Year -- Chase Lee
Date: Aug 13, 2019
By Matt Cohen
Max Romero and TJ McKenzie met at nine years old.
That’s when the sport they love drew them together, becoming teammates on a Miami-based youth baseball team. Romero and McKenzie grew up on opposing sides of the city, 60 miles apart.
Now, nearly a decade after that first season side-by-side, the duo are teammates once again -- and they’ll remain as such well past this summer.
But before they join head coach Tim Corbin and the defending national champion Vanderbilt Commodores this fall, the two are hitting one after the other in the lineup of the Alexandria Aces of the Cal Ripken Collegiate Baseball League.
After playing with each other at 9 years old, the duo didn’t see each other for five years. Across their high school careers, the two played faced off against each other at travel ball tournaments. Both McKenzie and Romero played in the Florida Travel Baseball organization, where McKenzie played for FTB Rockets and Romero played for FTB Gucci.
The nation’s top college programs began recruiting both players early in their high school careers. Not long after Romero announced his commitment to Vanderbilt, McKenzie recognized the newest Commodores recruit.
“I ended up finding out that he committed, and I was like ‘I think I know this kid,’” McKenzie said. “And then I saw his Instagram and I was like, ‘Oh yeah, I used to play with him when I was younger.’”
It wouldn’t be long before McKenzie announced his commitment, joining Romero in Nashville.
“When I found out TJ committed to Vandy was after I committed, and I was like, ‘Dude what just happened.’” Romero said. “It was crazy, but no one really knew it was going to happen like that.”
Neither knew about the decision process of the other. Neither pushed each other toward Vanderbilt. They didn’t know it then, but they were both thinking the same way.
After committing, the two played together on the 18U Giants Scout Team-FTB. It was a chance to get a head start on college and showcase themselves in front of MLB scouts. Their performances on the team earned them both draft consideration with Romero being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in the 38th round and McKenzie going to the St. Louis Cardinals in the 39th round. But they ensured they would remain teammates in Nashville as both chose not to sign.
“For the most part I think we were both Vanderbilt all the way,” Romero said. “We saw the opportunity and thought, ‘I think Vanderbilt’s a better opportunity for the long run.’ It came out turning out to be the best opportunity.”
Throughout the process, McKenzie had a resource Romero didn’t. McKenzie’s older brother, Triston, is the top-ranked prospect in the Cleveland Indians minor league system, according to MLB Pipeline. Like his brother, Triston McKenzie was also a Vanderbilt commit. But after being selected 42ndoverall in the 2015 MLB Draft, Triston decided to skip college and sign
Given his experience, Triston McKenzie provided his younger brother with an idea of how his life would look playing minor league baseball.
“He gave me the pros and cons of going to the MLB route,” McKenzie said. “He’s obviously been through the process. He was actually in a very similar predicament. He helped me with that and told me what to expect. I wasn’t really blindsided by anything.”
Passing on the MLB led Romero and McKenzie to Alexandria, Virginia -- a place neither knew existed before November.
It’s approximately 1,000 miles from South Florida to Frank Mann Field, the home of the Aces. In the Cal Ripken League, both players are facing college pitchers on a daily basis, something they didn’t get in high school.
As the duo make the quick adjustment to facing college arms, they’re making an adjustment off the field, too.
Like every college freshman, Romero and McKenzie have to learn how to live away from home. For them, that process starts this summer while they play with the Aces.
“I’ve never really been away from my family, not even for a day,” Romero said. “Being away from them was hard.”
For both players, creating a routine has been the key to that adjustment.
“Overall I just feel like having a routine, a regimen, is very important,” McKenzie said. “Having a set routine that you do pretty much every day. Go to the gym, make sure you’re eating, make sure you’re drinking a lot of water — all of the little stuff that helps you improve your game on the field.”
The adjustment on the field has come quickly, too.
As of July 7, McKenzie is hitting .313 in 67 at-bats. He has 12 RBIs, one home run, two triples and 13 stolen bases. Romero arrived in Virginia later than McKenzie, and in 47 at-bats he is hitting .340. Romero has 13 RBIs and three home runs, and he also has more walks (19) than strikeouts (17).
“I feel like it’s been more of a maturity thing,” Romero said. “I think it’s matured me as a better hitter and matured my mind. Knowing your counts, knowing what type of hitter you are. Back in high school everyone wanted to hit them out and roll around the bases. Now you have to know what type of hitter you are.”
With the Aces, Romero has the chance to work with a professional catcher, his manager Chris Berset. Berset was four-year starter for Michigan. He has experience at the college and professional level including parts of three seasons with the Triple-A affiliate of the Cincinnati Reds.
“It’s tremendous,” Romero said of learning from Berset. “(He) taught me a lot of things to improve my game behind the plate and also at the plate hitting. More often catching, receiving, (because) our job is just to make the pitchers look pretty. Make the game shorter. It helps us because it’s less time behind the plate, less time you have to be on your knees.”
Both Romero and McKenzie are using this summer to prepare for Vanderbilt. The Aces are in second-to-last place in the CRCBL, but for Romero and McKenzie the record isn’t as important as their own development on and off the field.
And maybe best of all, they’re teammates once again.