That Time A D.C. Prep School Cast Away Nats Phenom James Wood

James Wood did more than any other Washington National this spring to get fans fired up for the real season. Wood, who came to the Nats in 2022 via the Juan Soto trade, led all the organization’s minor leaguers last year with 26 homers, 91 RBI and a .520 slugging percentage. Baseball America pegged the 6-foot-6 21-year-old as the top defensive outfielder in the Nats’ farm system. Wood began spring training with a thrilling home run binge and ended it with a Grapefruit League-best 1.214 OPS.

Alas, for all his pep rallying down in Florida and as bright as Wood’s future with the organization surely looks, he wasn’t on Washington’s Opening Day roster Thursday as the Nats fell to the Reds in Cincinnati. Wood was among the final batch of cuts announced by the team last week. But this isn’t the first time Wood’s been cast aside by a baseball team in the nation’s capital. While awaiting his debut in the bigs, let’s look back at the weird tale of his last exile from D.C., which came amid one of the region’s higher-profile schoolboy sports soap operas.

Wood grew up in the D.C. suburbs, and he began his high school career playing for St. John’s College High School in town. D.C. hasn’t been much of a baseball town for decades. By my count, as of last season only three guys born here since 1990 ever made the majors: L.J. Hoes (a St. John’s alum), Matt Mervis, and Peter Solomon. The last native to become a bona fide MLB star was Maury Wills, who starred for Cardozo High in the early 1950s. (The greatest prep baseball story in the town’s history goes even further back and belongs to St. Alban’s James Trimble, a superstar pitcher and alleged classmate-with-benefits of Gore Vidal while both were at St. Alban’s School in the early 1940s, whose bright future on the diamond was cut short at Iwo Jima 79 years ago.) 

But the St. John’s team that Wood played for as a freshman in 2019 was absolutely loaded with talent. Among his teammates were several future D-I pitchers and James Triantos, a Chicago Cubs prospect who was named the Offensive Player of the Year in the Arizona Fall League a few months ago. 

St. John’s College High, founded in 1851, is among the oldest, most storied and moneyed prep schools in D.C. Whatever’s going on on campus can turn into gossip fodder for the local gentry. And in the fall of 2019, word that lots of top ballplayers, including Wood, had suddenly transferred away from St. John’s became a hot topic on the city’s most toxic/entertaining internet message board, D.C. Urban Moms. The mass exodus was attributed to financial and offseason time demands put on the players and their families by St. John’s varsity baseball coach Mark Gibbs. He had inherited the job in 2007 when his father, longtime St. John’s baseball coach Ed Gibbs, stepped down and gave it to him. Mark Gibbs was reportedly telling players that any kid who didn’t pay to join a private travel baseball team he ran throughout the year called the D.C. Cadets couldn’t have anything to do with the St. John’s baseball program. Gibbs also ran a training company and summer camp business called Diamond Skills Baseball LLC, which St. John’s players were encouraged to patronize, for a fee.

Gibbs didn’t invent the pay-to-play scheme, and he was by no means the only prep coach in the D.C. area to foist one on kids wanting to play for their school. When the St. John’s baseball shenanigans came to light on D.C. Urban Moms, parents from all around the area began confessing that they, too, had quietly and in many cases shamefully been paying private training businesses owned and operated by scholastic sports coaches. They were afraid that their kids would have no shot at making their school’s soccer, lacrosse, swimming, or whatever team if they weren’t customers of the coaches’ offseason enterprises.

What separated the St. John’s program from the others seemed to be that Gibbs enforced his pony-up-or-shove-off mandate on everybody on the squad, from the pine-riders to all-stars. He was willing to let an amazing amount of talent leave the school if their parents didn’t fork over money for the offseason training. Lots and lots of money. The Washington Post wrote up the brouhaha in March 2020, after a lawyer representing several families of baseball players who had been forced out of St. John’s wrote a letter to school administrators asking for a ban on Gibbs’s pay-to-play setup. The request went nowhere.

The newspaper reported that one parent had calculated that the manager’s mandate added “more than $12,000 a year” per player to the cost of going to St. John’s, which at the time had annual tuition of about $20,000. The school shouldn’t be hurting for cash: Alum Kevin Plank, founder and newly reinstalled CEO of Under Armour, pledged a reported $16 million donation to the school in 2015. (Folks attached to rival D.C. Catholic League institutions insisted to me at the time that Plank’s overall donations were several times that amount, a claim that St. John’s officials denied.)

The Post’s story also included a brutal May 2019 email Gibbs had sent to Jim Triantos, James’s father, laying out that playing ball with his offseason businesses was not optional: “This is not a ‘pick and choose’ type situation,” Gibbs wrote, according the newspaper. “The SJC baseball program and DC Cadets program (which includes the summer player development and Diamond Skills) are all linked together.”

Triantos and any other parent who questioned whether the school knew about this seeming shakedown scheme learned that its leadership was fully behind the coach. Three months after the elder Triantos got his chiding email from Gibbs, he received another missive from the St. John’s athletic director notifying him that his son had been kicked off the team. When Triantos got booted from St. John’s, he was coming off a season where he batted .495 and had 40 RBI. From the mound, he’d put up a 6-0 record with an ERA of 0.40. He’d already accepted a scholarship from the University of North Carolina. He was only a ninth grader. 

The Post story also included an email Gibbs sent to the father of University of South Florida commit Jake Feffer, in which the coach said the kid would “get his locker cleaned out” for not paying to play with the designated travel team. The story listed Wood, another underclassman who had already committed to Mississippi State, among the victims of Gibbs’s purge of non-payers. Wood’s sister, Sydney Wood, had been a star on the St. John’s nationally ranked girls basketball team and later played at Northwestern.

Defector asked Gibbs and St. John’s spokesperson Kathryn Zahner via email about the current status of the mandatory payment setup that forced Wood, Triantos, and others to leave St. John’s after the 2019 season. Zahner did not respond. Gibbs did respond via email, but did not answer if the pay-to-play system is still in place. The coach did say: “James Wood and James Triantos were both fantastic students and players during their time at SJC. Myself and the rest of our coaching staff are very excited about how well they are both performing and wish them nothing but the best of luck as they pursue their dreams to play in the major leagues.”

After getting driven away from St. John’s, Wood landed at IMG, the sports mega-academy in Bradenton, Fla. Then COVID-19 hit, and there was no 2020 baseball season for St. John’s or any other D.C. high schools. But Wood got to play in Florida at his new school. Kenny Wood, James’s father (and himself a former D-I basketball player at the University of Richmond), declined to discuss specifics of his son’s St. John’s saga, preferring to let bygones be bygones.

“We erased it and just moved forward,” Kenny Wood said. “The best thing for him was what happened.”

Other players who left alongside Wood and Triantos for non-compliance with Gibbs’s stringent schemes also kept playing at the next level: Feffer, a lefthanded pitcher, is now with William & Mary baseball; Jack O’Connor, a 6-foot-5 pitcher, is now with the 13th-ranked University of Virginia squad; and Nick Frazier spent the last two years on the pitching staff of Virginia Commonwealth University. 

Two leading major-league prospects and three D-I pitchers, and these are just the kids who got turned away? From one high school? Who says D.C. isn’t a baseball town?

Gibbs and St. John’s baseball have done real well after the exodus. The squad went 30-1-1 last year, outscored opponents 282-44, and ended the season ranked as the top team in the city and the No. 8 team in the country. In a Washington Post story on the fab season, St. John’s players attributed their successes to the fact that they “practice year-round.”

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