Shortstop has big shoes to fill

BENTON – Benton Panthers senior shortstop Brooks Balisterri signed a letter of intent to play for former Panthers’ pitcher, now major-league ace, Cliff Lee’s first college before becoming an Arkansas Razorback. Balisterri signed with the Meridian Eagles out of Meridian, Miss., the heart of SEC country, on Wednesday at Benton Arena and hopes his path becomes similar to Lee’s.

“We are very excited to have a solid player like Brooks joining our program,” Eagles Coach Chris Curry (Conway) said in a release. “Having played at the same high school as Cliff Lee, he understands what it means to be an Eagle and compete on a championship level.  We expect him to make an immediate impact in our program and are excited about his gritty, hard-nosed style of play. He comes from a first class family and his dad Mark has coached him well.”

“Watching him grow up his whole life playing baseball,” Benton baseball coach and father Mark Balisterri began, “Meridian is a top-notch junior college, he’s got a great opportunity to continue his baseball career and play at a place he can get seen.”

The elder Balisterri said he wanted Brooks to have the opportunity to be coached by someone else and said his son has a great work ethic.

“Brooks is a hard-working kid,” he said. “He’s a sponge. I always talk to him about taking stuff in his brain and keep it in there like a sponge and that’s what he does, and that’s why he’s been able to elevate his game to where he can play on the next level.”

Coach Balisterri mentioned that it’s tough being a coaches’ kid because of the seeming favoritism, but that his starting shortstop since his sophomore year has played above and beyond par as his leadoff hitter.
“He made it easy on me as his coach,” Balisterri said. “He performs when he is on the field. I didn’t have to answer any questions. He proved that he deserved to be on the field.”

Indeed the younger Balisterri did perform. He was second on the team with a .425 batting average and led the Panthers with 41 runs and 12 doubles, adding a home run, 16 RBIs and two triples.

“I just want to say thanks to everybody showing up,” the younger Balisterri said in front of a packed Benton Arena lobby. “It means a lot. I couldn’t do this by myself. Teammates, ya’ll are like family to me. I appreciate what everyone’s done. My sister [Bailey], she puts a lot of time into watching me play and I don’t know if you know I appreciate it, but I do.”

Meridian is within two and a half hours of six SEC schools, and the Eagles have been to seven Junior College World Series since 1993 and have won 11 Miss-Lou Conference Championships in an 18-year span, its most recent coming in 2010.

“He’s getting an opportunity to play at a junior college that is regarded as one of the top junior colleges in the nation,” Coach Balisterri said. “It’s a great place to play baseball. It’s in the South where it’s warm. He’s going to play in Florida quite a bit so it’s going to be a lot of fun.

“Very proud of him; proud of him as a coach and proud of him as a father, and we’re looking for him to do big things there and hopefully move on to an SEC school.

Balisterri said he expects big things from Brooks – who was an all-conference receiver for the Benton football team – with the Eagles, but he has unfinished business in helping with the Panthers’ state championship hopes. Last year, the Panthers were taken out of the playoffs in the state quarterfinals against Mountain Home.

“It’s been a fun ride, but it ain’t over,” the elder Balisterri said to his son. “We expect you to do big things at Meridian, but we want you to understand that you have some big things to do here. This team this year, we have a chance to do some special things.”

Coach Balisterri said since he has been Benton’s coach in 1995, there have been over 60 Panthers sign to play college baseball and that it has been an honor to have any players play at the next level, but it’s a little different this time around.

“It’s an even bigger honor to have your son have an opportunity,” the coach said tearing up.

Assistant Panthers’ baseball coach Rusty Davis said it wasn’t surprising that Brooks was getting this opportunity.

“He’s getting what he deserves,” Davis said. “He’s a hard worker. He eats [baseball], sleeps it, breathes it; it’s everything. He’s worked his whole life for this moment and he’s got a great opportunity to not only further his playing career, but his education.”

Coach Balisterri joked that Brooks has some big shoes to fill because the last player to play at Meridian from Benton was Cliff Lee.

“I’m not putting any pressure on you Brooks,” the coach said, “but the last person that went to Meridian that came from Benton is worth about $140 million right now.

“I’m looking forward to doing some major traveling to go watch him play because it’s six hours away. You may not see me hanging around the office a whole lot after a ballgame because I’m probably going to jump in a vehicle and head that way.”

But first, the Panthers’ shortstop has a lot to do before he moves on to his college playing days, and he’s ready for the coming high school season.

“I’m real excited about this year,” the younger Balisterri said. “I’ve grown up with a lot of people playing ball and I’m going out playing with all ya’ll,” he said of his teammates. “I hope that ya’ll get experience the same thing I am right now. It’s and awesome feeling and I just want to say thanks. It means the world.”