Can the HRDX Wild Cards become stars after three days of training?

June 15th, 2022

The Wild Cards came from all across the globe -- the UK, Korea, and Mexico -- and arrived in the lush and green city of Raleigh, North Carolina, for one reason and one reason only: To become home run hitters. There was no questioning their commitment -- they've already been at work for months on their own. No one could dispute their athletic bona fides, either, with two Olympic athletes among the mix. But would three days of coaching from some of the best baseball minds in the business be able to turn them into dinger-crushing sluggers before FTX MLB Home Run Derby X on July 9 at Crystal Palace Park? That was the question.

Day One: Training

Here are our Wild Cards, who are ready to become baseball stars:

  • Daniel Corral (Yankees), one of the greatest gymnasts in Mexico's history
  • Liv Cooke (Red Sox), a gifted football freestyler with the ability to perform soccer tricks that make your jaw drop
  • Spencer Owen (Cubs), a former FIFA YouTuber turned footballer and club owner of Hashtag United
  • Yoongy Kwak (Dodgers), a fashionable Olympic speed skater with a World Championship under his belt

For all that talent, baseball is a different beast entirely. It's a game built not just upon athleticism, but also incredibly technical skills which require thousands of hours of repetition to refine. Could the coaches condense a decade of practice into one long weekend?

Let's take a quick second to meet those coaches, who all work with the PRO5 Baseball Academy:

Mack Jenkins

  • Former Reds pitching coach
  • Over 30 years experience in professional baseball
  • PRO5 Pitching Development Coordinator

Dave Jauss

  • Washington Nationals senior advisor
  • Former New York Mets bench coach, including being the pitcher for Pete Alonso during his HR Derby win
  • Over 40 years in professional baseball

Sammy Serrano

  • Former member of the San Francisco Giants organization
  • USA Baseball catching Coach
  • PRO5 catching Coordinator

Justin Kunz

  • Former member of the Los Angeles Angels organization
  • PRO5 assistant coach

Jay Stott

  • Former UNC Wilmington D1 Player
  • Former USA Baseball NTIS Coach

Michael Griffin

  • Former MLB Development Center head coach
  • Former Czech National Team manager
  • PRO5 Baseball Academy director of baseball development

After the Wild Cards were put to the test with hours in the cage, Kwak was exhausted.

"It's a really different feel from my sport. My sport [speed skating] is really tiring for my legs," Kwak said. "[My arms] are really tired. I can't use chopsticks now. I'm Korean!"

Day Two: The Legends are here

After the first day of instruction, the Cubs' Geo Soto and the Red Sox's Jonny Gomes arrived at camp. With years of big league experience and nearly 300 MLB home runs hit between them, they were another invaluable resource for the new hitters.

Cooke, who speaks in a constant rapid-fire mix of (often unprintable) jokes, was always hungry and eager to learn more. After struggling to hit for power, Gomes and Soto pulled her aside and pointed out how she could create more torque with every swing. As if by magic, she immediately added about 50 extra feet to every liner after stepping back up to the plate.

Liv Cooke at the plate.

"The most important thing about coaching -- and which makes coaching extremely easy -- is the want of the information," Gomes said. "The listening, the questions. If they want that information, it makes it a lot simpler to coach."

"I love the learning. Meeting a legend like Jonny Gomes and really appreciating his skill level," Cooke said. "When you get here in person and see how fast that ball is, you appreciate it at a different level. Seeing the pros in action and trying to replicate it -- that's the hardest."

That afternoon, the group broke into two teams to play a sample game. After dominating in the morning, Corral's legs were sapped of strength and he had trouble driving the ball. Kwak, meanwhile, drew on his powerful legs to put on the best display. He blasted back-to-back balls over the fence -- before admitting he was a little upset that he wouldn't get a chance to show off his speed in the tournament.

"I know Mookie Betts is small and fast and very quick, so I wanted to mimic his style," Kwak said. "I wanted to be like [him] when it comes to baserunning, so it's disappointing that there are no stolen bases or running element."

Yoongy Kwak takes a swing.

While there was a real sense of camaraderie and friendship among the Wild Cards, they remained extremely competitive and self-critical.

"I'm happy for the others when they do well, but if I don't do good, I'm pissed," Corral said. "I'm mad, I'm frustrated. But that personality and attitude has got me to the highest level in my sport. If I take 100 swings, in my mind, I want to do a good job with 100 swings. It's impossible to be perfect, but I always try to push myself."

Daniel Corral in the cage.

Meanwhile, Owen -- perhaps the most competitive person among the group -- was a little harsher with himself.

"I feel like [the coaches] are all probably looking at us, like, 'You [stink],'" Owen said.

Day Three: The Test Event

It was all leading up to this: The test event, when fans would walk through the turnstiles at Ting Park and those hours of training would be put on display. But after two days of sweltering, nonstop heat and baking sun, a major storm was supposed to tear through the region right around the time fans arrived at the stadium. If this event were cancelled, there would be no chance for the Wild Cards to play in front of a crowd before the real deal in London.

The skies did open and for over 20 minutes, rain pounded the field. Cars had to pull over to the side of the road as no windshield wiper could possibly withstand the downpour. Emergency flash flood alerts lit up every cell phone. And then, as if nature itself wanted to see HRDX in action, the skies cleared for a beautiful spring night in North Carolina.

There was another surprise in store, too: To better replicate the event in London, two more Major Leaguers showed up to help fill the teams. Former Red Sox star Trot Nixon joined Corral and the Yankees -- though he did refuse to put on a Yankees jersey, further endearing himself to Red Sox Nation -- and former slugger Jerry Sands got back into his Dodgers uniform to join Kwak.

Oddly enough, Sands -- who lives just 40 minutes from the stadium -- had actually played in Korea and could converse a little with Yoongy in his native language.

"I dropped every Korean word I had learned on him over there -- a few different foods that I liked and a few different words. So yeah, I talked to him a little bit and I got a few pictures I'm going to send to a few of the Korean guys that I still keep up with," Sands said after the event. "He spoke pretty good English, so it wasn't too bad. When I was immersed in Korea and Japan, I didn't speak the language at all."

Jerry Sands poses with Yoongy Kwak.

After breaking into teams, with some of the PRO5 academy members filling out the lineup, they took the field and battered the outfield with fly balls. The children amassed beyond the fence were thrilled with all the souvenir baseballs that fell from the heavens.

Perhaps not surprisingly given how seriously he took it, Spencer Owen led the way with five points during the event.

"It's unbelievable to represent such a prestigious team. Some of the pressure is wanting to do them proud," Owen said about taking hacks in his Cubs jersey. "It's all nice and good having all the gear, but if you don't hit well wearing it, you just look like a mug."

When it was all over, the Cubs defeated the Red Sox, 45-31, while the Dodgers just squeaked past the Yankees, 39-35.

Even when the day was all over, some still couldn't get enough baseball. After signing autographs for nearly an hour, Corral stayed out on the field to play catch with a couple of kids who had brought their gloves.