BY MICHAEL KELLY
CLIFTON PARK — Several hundred people were already in the stands around the baseball field at Larson Playfield, a complex where spectators can see the body of water with which the small city of Moses Lake, Wash., shares its name.
On the field, the Clifton Park Knights warmed up for their first game of the 14-year-old Babe Ruth World Series. Many in that growing crowd three summers ago were not there to see the boys from upstate New York. The hometown team had the tournament’s next game, and its fans were taking advantage of a cool August evening to catch some extra baseball.
The scene made the Knights a bit nervous. So, too, did their opponent: Word had gotten to the Knights that their foe from Bryant, Ark., had won the prior year’s World Series at the 13-year-old level.
“We were pretty intimidated by that team,” said Nik Malachowski, a Knight and now a senior on Shenendehowa’s high school baseball team. “When we got to the game, we were a little nervous, a little scared. . . . We’d heard they had all these pitchers that threw gas and hitters that hit home runs.”
“Everyone had told us we had no chance,” said Bob Anderson, an assistant coach for the Knights.
The Knights offered up one of his twins to pitch the game. The teen had blossomed that summer, the spoils from the years he’d spent pitching to his brother off the mound in his parents’ backyard and chasing after the players on the Schalmont varsity teams his dad coached.
The kid had been great during the team’s run to the World Series, but the Knights needed something special from him this game.
They got something more than special. He was transformational.
That day, that kid emerged as the Ian Anderson who would terrorize Section II hitters and draw the attention of Major League Baseball scouts. Now an 18-year-old senior at Shenendehowa, it was out in Moses Lake where Anderson first looked like the player the Atlanta Braves took third in this year’s MLB First-Year Player Draft.
“His first pitch went right by the first hitter,” Malachowski said. “That kid swung so late.”
Anderson was perfect through four innings.
“They had no answer for Ian,” said Tom Huerter, the Knights’ head coach.
Anderson allowed a hit to start the fifth inning, then induced a double play. Before exiting prior to the seventh inning, he struck out eight and did not allow a run, facing the minimum 18 batters. The Knights won in stunning fashion, 10-1.
“He just did his thing,” said Anderson’s twin brother Ben, the pitcher’s lifelong battery mate. “That’s one of the most fun games I’ve ever caught.”
Current teammates point to that game as the evening Anderson showed who he would become.
“That was the breaking point for Ian,” said Mike Jeffers, another Shenendehowa senior from that Knights team. “That’s when he elevated himself.”
The only one that doesn’t see that game that way is Anderson. He doesn’t remember the final score.
“It was just another game,” said Anderson, a humble honor roll student who will play baseball at Vanderbilt University if he chooses to delay his boyhood dream of playing professionally.
But it wasn’t. That game was a launching point.
“You could see there was something special about Ian right then and there,” Malachowski said.
That 2013 youth World Series preceded the three varsity seasons Anderson played. During that time, the 6-foot-3, 175-pound right-handed pitcher has struck out 180 batters in 128 1/3 innings while allowing 10 earned runs. In the summer between his junior and senior years, he won a world championship in Japan playing for the USA Baseball 18U national team.
It’s been a meteoric rise for a kid cut as an eighth-grader from Shenendehowa’s freshman team. Even as a sophomore, Shenendehowa head coach Greg Christodulu and pitching coach Keith Lansley remember the key reason Anderson started the year with the Plainsmen’s varsity was because the team’s early-season schedule dictated a need for an extra pitcher.
“But the opportunity was there for him,” Lansley said, “and he just kept proving himself,”
Anderson struck out 34 batters in 33 innings that spring. He hit 90 mph in the state playoffs.
His peers from around the area were shocked. He was no longer their peer.
“You know, [when we were younger] we were all good,” said Cory McArthur, a senior Saratoga Springs pitcher who has played against Anderson since grade school. “He was on the same level as us, so to speak. He might have thrown a tick faster, but he was always right in the ballpark as everyone else.”
Shenendehowa senior catcher Michael Gillooley agreed, describing Anderson as “like any other normal kid. He’d play shortstop one inning, pitch an inning, then go to third or left field.”
The kids got older, the fields got larger, and all of the sudden Anderson was not the same pitcher.
“When he was 13, 14 years old, Shenendehowa right fielder Richard Drum said, “he exploded.”
That matches Zach Kerr’s memory. The Niskayuna senior said the first time the Silver Warriors faced Anderson at the high school level was during a freshman game in which Niskayuna scored several runs off the Shenendehowa pitcher. The next year, one of Kerr’s friends on Niskayuna’s varsity raved about a Shenendehowa sophomore named Anderson who had dominated the Silver Warriors.
“You sure we’re talking about the same kid?” Kerr, then playing JV, asked his buddy.
That summer, Kerr found out for sure. Facing Anderson while playing for a South Troy Dodgers travel squad that made it to the AABC World Series, Kerr saw the change in Anderson up close.
“He made us look like children,” Kerr said.
Throughout his varsity career, Anderson has lost only two decisions heading into this weekend’s state semifinals. The first of those defeats came when Saratoga topped Shenendehowa 1-0 in the 2015 Section II Class AA title game. Anderson struck out a dozen batters, while the Blue Streaks only had one batter reach base after scoring in the first inning. The final six Saratoga batters struck out.
“He shut us down that game. We just happened to scramble for a run in the first inning,” said Nick Kondo, a junior on that Blue Streaks team. “He overpowered us.”
CBA faced Anderson in this year’s area title game. Nick DeBrino, the team’s junior second baseman who lives in Clifton Park, said the Brothers wanted to see Anderson in the championship.
“That was the goal the whole year,” DeBrino said. “And once we got him, we were like, ‘This is amazing. We’re facing an MLB draft pick.’ I mean, we were facing 94, 95 miles per hour. That’s an entirely different game.”
Anderson shut out the Brothers, then struck out 16 Cicero-North Syracuse batters in the next weekend’s regional championship win. From the crowd, DeBrino wondered if Cicero’s batters had any idea what to make of the mid-90s fastball and sharp-breaking curveball Anderson was dealing.
“I mean, how often do you see something like that?” DeBrino said.
When you do, though, you remember it.
Those kids from Arkansas do.
Jerry East, who coached that 2013 Bryant team, said his son Jake came home recently all excited. He and his friends had just come across an MLB mock draft online.
“Do you remember that kid from New York who pitched against us?” he asked his father.
East does. Too well.
“I hate that he threw against us,” said a laughing East, whose squad — like the Knights — lost in the 2013 tournament’s semifinals. “I wish they’d thrown someone else.”
East’s squad had not lost a game that summer before facing Anderson. The coach had expected his team to roll past the Knights. A few innings into the game, East said it was clear his team was facing something different than it had ever seen.
“There wasn’t anything we could do about him,” said East, who estimated Anderson was throwing in the mid-80s that game. “That kid was unreal.”
East was coaching that same group of players the week of the MLB draft at an elite tournament in Atlanta. Nearly all of them are on track to play Division I or II baseball. After winning six youth baseball state titles in Arkansas, the group has helped its high school team to two state titles in the last three years.
Those players, their coach said, couldn’t wait to see their former foe drafted.
“They’ve been talking about him all week,” East said. “They all remember him.”