BRISTOL, Va. – Mark Daniels is the baseball equivalent of a gym rat.
The 51-year-old Bristol, Virginia, native has spent more than three decades representing the Virginia High Bearcats.
During that run, Daniels has been part of a rare triple crown with state baseball titles as a player, assistant and head coach.
“My ultimate goals for this program are to win state championships and develop players for the next level in life and baseball,” Daniels said.
Consider the 2018 season at VHS.
Despite little preseason fanfare and five losses in their first six games, the seven-time state champion Bearcats won 20 games and advanced to their 12th state title game before dropping a 5-4 decision to Page County in the Class 2 final.
In recognition of that turnaround season, Daniels was named as the Bristol Herald Courier’s 2018 baseball coach of the year.
Daniels has served on the VHS coaching staff for 28 years, including a 26-year run as the head Bearcat where he has earned three state crowns along with four state runner-up finishes.
Since Daniels replaced Eddie Icenhour on the VHS bench, there have been sweeping changes in youth and high school baseball on the regional and national level.
In addition to mandatory pitch counts and improvements in technology, high school coaches must now deal with the surge in travel ball where athletes basically pay to play on a hodgepodge of teams led by instructors with varying backgrounds.
“When I was growing up, we had two different Little League programs in Bristol, Virginia, and we all took pride competing for a state title and representing our community,” Daniels said. “There was no travel ball.”
Following the lead of other locales across Virginia, the travel ball concept has gradually gained popularity in far Southwest Virginia with some athletes playing for far-flung squads that travel around the East Coast. Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, is one of the most popular destinations for travel teams and their families.
Daniels said the benefits of playing extra games against quality competition in the summer and fall should be weighed against the pitfalls.
“There are some great organizations that promote the game and do things right, but a lot of times I see daddy-ball,” Daniels said. “You have kids spending a lot of money to compete on these travel teams and then you have kids that cannot afford it.
“At the high school level, we’re talking about winning a state championship ring but you wonder what that means to kids who have won multiple runner-up or participation trophies since they were 8 or 9.”
Serving as a professional baseball scout for 24 years, including a current 17-year stint with the Atlanta Braves, Daniels has picked up on the trends and tricks of the game.
After working at the recent Honor Roll showcase camp in Long Island, New York, Daniels spent nine days in Jupiter, Florida, where he coached and evaluated talent for Under Armour and the Baseball Factory.
Daniels has also been a regular at the USA Baseball National Training Complex in Cary, North Carolina, along with the massive LakePoint Sports Complex in Emerson, Georgia, and various locales in Arizona.
“I do a lot of my scouting work in the fall and summer months,” Daniels said. “I missed my first-round draft pick this year in left-handed pitcher Ryan Weathers because the San Diego Padres took him as the seventh pick when we [the Braves] were going to take him at No. 8.”
Daniels currently scouts Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina and most of Tennessee for the Braves. He played a key role in the selection of Carson-Newman standout Brett Langhorne in the recent Major League draft.
With the emphasis on analytics and cross checking, scouting can be a tedious and time-consuming job. According to Daniels, his big payoff comes in the spring.
“I’ve become friends with lots of coaches at the high school, college and pro level, but all the off-season work I do is to make myself a better coach for players here at Virginia High and to operate a successful high school program,” Daniels said. “Virginia High baseball has always been my No. 1 obligation.”
Chandler Davis is one of those success stories.
As a catcher, Davis helped guide the 2014 Bearcats to the 2A state championship. He then attended Radford University, starting 35 games and playing on two NCAA tournament teams before deciding to end his playing days due to multiple concussions.
“Playing for person like Coach Daniels helps a ton in getting noticed and recruited for college baseball,” Davis said. “Playing under a coach with that much experience and so many connections, you know you are being evaluated at every practice and game. That puts some pressure on you, but it also makes you perform at your highest level.”
Davis said the winning formula for Daniels can be traced to one word – commitment.
“His methods are pretty simple,” Davis said. “He wants you to play hard and fast, and do the little things right. If you follow that approach, everything will fall into place.
“Coach Daniels is by far one of the best coaches in Virginia and he loves each kid on his team. If it wasn’t for his help, I wouldn’t have had the college opportunities that I did.”
Davis has followed the path of his mentor. In addition to beginning his teaching and coaching career at VHS this year, Davis is managing three age-group teams for the Dirtbags travel baseball organization.
“I’m hoping that my next step will be coaching with Coach Daniels and the Virginia High baseball program,” Davis said.
Along with grooming dozens of VHS players for college baseball, Daniels coached Major League pitcher Justin Grimm.
“In my 26 years as head coach at Virginia High, around 87 percent of our seniors have had an opportunity to play at the college level or beyond,” Daniels said. “Along with winning state championships, that’s my ultimate goal.”
Four of the five VHS seniors on the 2018 squad are planning to play baseball at the collegiate level.
Other goals on the Daniels agenda include spicing up the annual Bristol-based Fellowship of Christian Athletes tournament with elite programs from around the southeast.
“We’ve had some out-of-town teams in the past, and now we’re really trying to grow the event,” Daniels said. “We’re looking at 16 teams playing at Virginia High, Tennessee High, John Battle and Abingdon.
“We have great baseball programs in Southwest Virginia, and we want to promote the game in the entire region while showcasing the talent against a strong field.”
Daniels is also hoping the VHSL officials will soon expand the regular-season schedule beyond the current 20 games.
“Some great baseball players have come out of Virginia and I really hope the VHSL will do the right thing and give us more games,” Daniels said. “It will give our kids more experience and exposure.”
There is one other vital ingredient to Bearcat baseball. That’s the man in the first base coaching box who was a much-decorated football and baseball standout at VHS and Concord University.
“Carlos Lee has been my right-hand man since I started coaching this team and he deserves as much credit for our success as anybody,” Daniels said. “Carlos has a passion for the game that is unrivaled and he’s one of the best outfield instructors I’ve ever been around. I just hope he holds true to his word and doesn’t go anywhere until I do.”
Daniels said the comeback story of the 2018 Bearcats was illustrative of the VHS baseball program.
“We always talk about the process more than the result. Sometimes that approach backfires, but our goal every season is to win the state championship,” Daniels said.
“We started out slow this season against some really good competition. We had some of our better players not come out for the team and one of our top players quit in the second game, but this bunch of kids bought in to what we were doing and followed the process.”
And Daniels plans to keep teaching his blueprint.
“Kids today feel entitled with travel ball and other aspects of life,” he said. “I’m more of an aggressive and demanding coach. Kids need a plan today. We provide that plan and stick to it.
“As long as the kids are willing to put the work in, I hope to coach here until the good Lord takes me. I just love the game of baseball. It’s my life.”