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Buzz Bissinger: An unlikely baseball factory and its star

Buzz Bissinger, an Inquirer columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter and is the author of "Friday Night Lights" and "Three Nights in August," knew about Phillies first-round draft pick Jesse Biddle before the scouts with radar guns.

Top Phillies pick Jesse Biddle is kissed by the Phanatic at Germantown Friends School. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)
Top Phillies pick Jesse Biddle is kissed by the Phanatic at Germantown Friends School. (Clem Murray/Staff Photographer)Read more

Buzz Bissinger, an Inquirer columnist who won a Pulitzer Prize as a reporter and is the author of "Friday Night Lights" and "Three Nights in August," knew about Phillies first-round draft pick Jesse Biddle before the scouts with radar guns.

The best and most improbable sports act playing in Philadelphia right now hasn't been the Flyers. It hasn't been the Phillies, who for the first time in five years actually scored more than a run. The honor belongs to a small private school in the wobbly urban heart of Germantown. It is called Germantown Friends School, or GFS for short, its campus shunted into Coulter Avenue like a series of Lego pieces jammed together by hammer. While many of you out there may have not heard of GFS, you are no doubt familiar with the vehicles that the parents drive, probably because you have been stuck behind one.

In keeping the Quaker tradition that defines the school, where less can still be even less and exceeding the speed limit is a shameful reflection of ostentatious frenzy, most of the cars are minivans 10 to 15 years old. Every now and then a used Volvo wagon pops up, which under unofficial Rule 6 of the parents' handbook, is perfectly acceptable as long as the mileage is over 150,000 and it has never been washed. And, of course, Priuses are beginning to proliferate like rabbits.

In accordance with unofficial Rule 7, each vehicle regardless of make, must be completely obliterated by bumper stickers. Slight variation is allowed, but in general they must read along the lines of "Honk if

You Still Hate Bush Because You Should," "How Would You Feel if a Cow decided to have you for dinner?" "Why Weren't You at Woodstock?" and "Only Men who are Possibly Girly Attend Tea Parties."

The school in other words is quite liberal.

I know about GFS because my son Caleb went there from kindergarten through high school. It is an exceptional school, where the values of community, giving to others, humanity, tolerance, diversity, and buying food only at nearby food co-ops in Mount Airy or Chestnut Hill are sacred covenants. I am proud to say that my son, who graduated last year, is a perfect reflection of GFS's intense academic rigor. His love of the intrinsic poetry and possibility of the English language, his knowledge of history as a pathway to the future, his ability to think critically, make him the typical Germantown Friends student. So does his propensity in math, where just the other day I asked him what 17 times 4 was and he said, "Dad, I went to GFS. I have no idea."

There are many great schools in the Philadelphia area rooted in the values of Quakerism whether by design or osmosis - Penn Charter, Friends Select, Friends Central, even Lower Merion before it discovered that most of the students taking home school-owned laptops were sleeping instead of doing homework.

As far as I am concerned, GFS lacks in nothing. With the possible exception of its sports programs, the legacy of which can pretty much be summarized by the following:

On a scale of one to 10, sports in the hierarchy of GFS ranks about 160. The boys' cross-country team does pretty well, because, of course, it is inherently peace-loving with lots of group hugs at the end. Every now and then, a superb squash or lacrosse player slips through. But athletics at GFS are exactly what they should be and so rarely are in the insanity of our lunatic sports culture, an opportunity for kids to play, have fun, and compete without the recruited ringers that make Ohio State seem like a wannabe next to Germantown Academy.

Until this week, when an 18-year-old senior at GFS named Jesse Biddle became the first-round pick of the Phillies in the major-league baseball draft. To say that this is a miracle is a drastic understatement. To say that it is a story of smiling serendipity is also an understatement. I have met Jesse Biddle. He is a sweet kid who in the context of GFS, is more appreciated for the new fashion statement he created by punching in the holes of the 3-D classes he donned for Avatar and wearing them to school than he is for his baseball prowess. Fellow students knew, but there was no worship at the altar.

Although it certainly doesn't hurt when you are a 6-foot-5 lefty who isn't crazy, clocks a fastball at 94, throws a sweet slider, is mastering a change-up, and in the last three games of his career during tournament play in the Friends Schools League championship and the Pennsylvania Independent Schools state championship, struck out all 15 batters he faced against the Westtown School, struck out 19 batters against Shipley School in seven innings, and finished off his career against Inter-Ac champion Haverford School by once again striking out 15 batters in five innings for a grand total of 49 strikeouts in 17 innings.

That's an incredible story for a kid who has been destined for something special since he was 7 and hit his best friend, Danny Ceisler, in the elbow the first time Ceisler ever faced him, a pain so intense that he cried and still has flashbacks to this day. Jesse has obviously come a long way since then.

The Phillies are too well-run to be in the charity business, to take Biddle simply because he was a local kid. Among the legions of scouts armed with their radar guns and their notepads tracking every pitch Biddle threw this season, Phillies general manager Ruben Amaro Jr. came to watch him play. So did pitching coach Rich Dubee, and so did the grandmaster of crafting a baseball team, Pat Gillick. They saw a kid with great upside, but also a kid for whom the experience of GFS only made him wiser, whole, able to probe and think for himself and communicate, and also possess something very few great pitchers have whatever the professional level, which is actual intelligence. There was also a connection, since Mike Stiles, the team vice president of operations and administration, has a daughter who went there. Jesse had the benefit of that singular GFS experience, somebody who has never wanted to be defined by baseball alone and is a big man on campus mostly because he is quite big.

His parents have both worked for the city, David as the head of the city's recycling program (he now is executive director of the Greater Philadelphia Commercial Recycling Council) and Marion in charge of information technology for the Streets Department. They live in Mount Airy near Allens Lane, and they have put three of their sons through the school. "Shelling out that money was a hardship," said Dave, but it was worth it because of what GFS provided - "principles of community and ethics, neighborliness." Not to mention demanding academics and no athletic wink-and-nods.

His parents toyed with the idea of sending Jesse to high school at Germantown Academy, as the school does have one hellacious baseball team. There was some thought of Jesse getting his GED so he could pitch virtually non-stop. He had signed a letter of intent with the University of Oregon, and before the draft they were trying to talk the family into having Jesse graduate early so he could pitch for the Ducks this spring.

But as Dave Biddle put it, "Once you get involved in a community like [GFS], it would be silly to leave."

Jesse was also determined not to forsake his teammates, six of whom - Danny Ceisler, Justin Berg, Jay Query, Josh Goldenberg, Sam Mercuris, and Jesse himself - had started in kindergarten together. At the age of 10, they played on the Mount Airy All-Stars together joined by another future GFS student, Jason Symonette. They all went on to the GFS varsity this spring on their way to the state finals of the Pennsylvania Independent Schools championship for the first time in their history, before being beaten by Germantown Academy.

Jesse wanted to be with them until the end, to see how long the splendor of serendipity would take them. When it was over he cried, because as Danny Ceisler put it, "Jesse's a bit of a crier, so it doesn't take much to get him going." It was also important to Jesse that he graduate.

The GFS baseball program is not one that one would call state of the art. You have to take a bus to get to the school's home field. The scoreboard is mechanical, and it is up to a sub on the team to make sure it is kept current, with the spare digits dumped into a shopping cart.

Jesse never wilted under the onslaught of the scouts. He had played in numerous national tournaments already, featuring some of the most elite prospects in the country, so he knew what pressure was like. The only time he got nervous, he said, was during the Monday major-league draft, which in arguably the most liberal community in the United States, Mount Airy, was watched on live television by straight couples, gay couples, transgender couples, transsexual couples, and other couples whose preferences are way too complex to describe.

He watched the draft at his uncle's house in Havertown. His older brother, Sam, was there, although Conor, in keeping with GFS tradition, went on a middle school camping trip rather than waste time seeing if his brother would make the first round. His parents were there, of course. Cousins were there. So were his two private pitching coaches, Chuck Bechtel and Chuck Bushbeck, who, working out of a badly lit garage in Torresdale with a mound and a net and some boxing equipment lying around, reconstructed his delivery and taught him the slider and transformed him from a kid who could pitch in high school to a kid who became a major-league prospect.

So was Danny Ceisler, who watched Jesse as he paced back and forth and chewed on a pillow in the shape of a Coke can. The best shot for the first round was felt to be the Brewers with the 14th pick. But they went with righty pitcher Dylan Covey instead, which brought an obvious sense of disappointment but also relief that the dream of the Phillies was still possible. And then it actually happened with the 27th pick and pandemonium erupted.

On Friday, Jesse will graduate from GFS at the Friends Meeting House on Arch Street. He will not be singled out. There will be no odes in his honor. His uniform number will not be retired. In the sparse and spare interior of the Meeting House, which only makes the ceremony all the more resonant and beautiful, he will simply be one of 98 kids receiving a diploma. Which is exactly the way he wants it and exactly the way GFS will insist upon it.

But as soon as next week, he may well be in the Gulf Coast League in Florida beginning the uncertain journey that defines a pitching prospect's life, no bigger graveyard than the one filled with arms that could have been and should have been and never were.

"I can handle being away from home," says Jesse. "I'm not really worried about anything." There is the quiet confidence of a GFS grad, but he's an athlete, so there is also the requisite cockiness and ego. He has the raw talent, but that talent will have to be shaped.

Several years I wrote a book called Three Nights in August, in which I followed the St. Louis Cardinals for a season. I took Jesse and Danny to a Phils-Cardinals game here last summer and was able to introduce them to Albert Pujols. I extolled Jesse's virtues, and Albert smiled and grabbed Jesse's hand with one of his mitts of steel and said, "Maybe one day you'll be pitching against me."

Be careful for what you wish for, Albert. Jesse thinks it will take four years to get to the show, and he promises it will be mano a mano. He'll establish the inside and he won't be throwing lollipop change-ups.

"I'll be coming right after him," says Jesse, and so will Albert, and the rest will be history with a kid who went to the most unlikely and wonderful baseball factory in the universe in the quintessential Philadelphia story.