Why Ian Moller, Iowa's best homegrown high school baseball prospect in a generation, doesn't play here
DUBUQUE, Ia. — Ian Moller is standing in the batter’s box of a batting cage his family fashioned inside an old auto garage that was used in a past life to soup up cars. A large garage door has been pulled up, bringing in sunlight and fresh air on this summer day.
Moller holds a wooden bat and takes a healthy hack at a pitch thrown by his dad, Steven, who is standing 35 feet away behind a protective screen. When Moller connects on one ball, it smacks into the screen and the number 95.4 — showing the exit velocity of the ball off the bat — lights up on a screen sitting a few feet behind home plate.
“That’s a good swing,” Steven tells his son.
Moller loves the grind that comes with his dream of becoming not just a Major League baseball player, but one of the best to play. He's a prodigy, considered the second-best high school baseball prospect of the 2021 class and committed to Louisiana State University. Of course, he may skip college baseball altogether. MLB.com considers him the No. 16 prospect in its early rankings for next June's First-Year Player Draft.
If those were the only unique things about this Dubuque teenager, that would be quite the story. But they're not.
A 6-foot-1, 201-pound catcher, Moller is considered the no-doubt best talent in Iowa, perhaps in a generation, even though he's never played an inning of Iowa high school baseball. And he never will.
Instead, Moller has spent his high school career traveling around the country, showcasing his skills.
He's the great-grandson of a Negro Leagues baseball player, the family says, and is now carving out his own legacy in the sport. He hopes to share his story as one of the few Black students at his school and help other Black players carve their own paths to greatness.
“We’ve even had pro teams that go, ‘Your story is going to be so much bigger than your baseball career — the story of who you are and where you come from. We’re interested— we love the story,’” Steven said.
Baseball was 'destiny' for Moller
Steven likes to use the phrase, "built, not born," when it comes to his son's success.
He believes his son's accomplishments come from hard work. But when you think about it, Ian may have been born to play baseball.
The stories of his connection to the game start with his great-grandfather, Hubert Ross Sr. The family has passed down stories of Ross' time in the Negro Leagues playing legends like Josh Gibson. Official records of his baseball career aren't available from the Negro Leagues Museum, though a museum official said that's not uncommon due to incomplete records from the time.
Or consider the night Moller was born as proof of this fated existence. On Oct. 26, 2002, his parents were watching Game 6 of the 2002 World Series. When the doctor came in to begin a scheduled cesarean section, baseball legend Barry Bonds came to the plate. Steven asked that the procedure wait so he could watch the prodigious slugger's at-bat.
Bonds crushed a home run.
A half-hour later, Moller was born.
“We always joke that it was kind of destiny from the get-go,” said Ian's mother, Shannon.
As a toddler, Moller didn't have a favorite stuffed animal or special blanket. He had a baseball glove he would sleep with, though.
He worked on his backhand by catching balls ricocheted off a dumpster outside the family's Dubuque townhouse. On the finished floor in the basement, he laid down cardboard so he could work on blocking balls there.
Steven, an avid slow-pitch softball player, brought Ian to the field when he was still in diapers. Even then, his father says, Ian would play catch with Steven’s teammates.
“I never looked at it as work,” Ian said. “A lot of other kids do because I feel like a lot of kids don’t really love it like I do. … But it’s fun to me, and I’ve always just had the love for it.”
Moller quickly became a star. He began hitting balls so hard that when he was 12 he lined a ball back through the protective screen his father was behind and broke Steven's arm. He was so good that he played up with kids two years older than him — and you couldn't tell.
The University of Iowa offered him a scholarship to play baseball when he was in eighth grade. MLB scouts knew of him before he was in high school. As a high school freshman, Moller picked SEC powerhouse LSU, one of the top baseball programs in the country.
“It just came so easy for me,” Moller said.
Moller's controversial decision: To play in Iowa or not?
Well, not everything came easily for him.
Steven chuckles when he's asked about the family's decision not to have Ian play high school baseball in Iowa. Of course he's had push-back, he says.
Last summer, when he and Ian were sitting in the stands with a friend of his at a Dubuque Wahlert baseball game, a couple of parents turned around and asked him the question everyone there wonders.
Why would Ian choose to go to the school but not play baseball there?
"I told people from the beginning, 'He's probably not going to play at Wahlert,'" Steven said.
The reason Ian went to Dubuque Wahlert was simple: His family believed it was the best place in the city to get a good education.
His reasons for not playing on the high school team are more complex.
The biggest reason, though: opportunity. The way Steven looked at it, the best opportunities his son would have to showcase his ability weren't going to come in Iowa, the lone state in the country to play baseball in the summer to avoid overlapping with spring sports.
As it is, Iowa's season coincides with the baseball circuit of elite player showcases and tournaments. If Iowa would have had its baseball season in the spring like other states, Steven said his son would have played for Wahlert.
Instead, for Ian to play in front of more college coaches and pro scouts, the family needed to pack their bags and travel the country.
During a Perfect Game wood bat tournament in 2017, Steven said he talked to around 15 coaches who agreed that skipping the Iowa high school season was his son's best route.
"Each one of the coaches said, 'What you're doing with your kid is smart, because we're not coming to Iowa in the summer to watch one kid play high school baseball when I could set up shop for two weeks (at an out-of-state baseball event) and I'm watching 1,000 kids in the country play against each other,'" Steven said.
Dubuque Wahlert baseball coach Kory Tuescher understands why the Moller family made their decision. Tuescher said not having Moller on his team doesn't bother him, even though he knows the state's best talent is walking the school's hallways.
"Ian is special, so we're excited to follow his journey and his path," Tuescher said.
But the opportunity to play in out-of-state showcases wasn't the only reason Moller skipped high school baseball in Iowa.
Steven and Shannon wanted their son to experience more diversity. He comes from an interracial marriage. Shannon is white. Steven is Black.
According to the Iowa Department of Education, Dubuque Wahlert, a private Catholic school, had only five Black students out of 484 enrolled last year.
Shannon and Steven say their son has experienced racism growing up.
When Ian was in seventh grade at Mazzuchelli Catholic Middle School, someone at his school continually called him a racial slur, his parents said. The family says teachers and other students ignored the situation.
Steven says his son was heckled at youth baseball games because of his race.
"Most of the time, I was the only black kid on the team," Ian said. "I guess I didn't realize it back then. Then you started growing up and you start seeing things, and you start realizing things that didn't make sense back then, but it does now.
"... (My parents) always taught me just to be different and to be comfortable in my own skin."
Years ago, Steven sat Ian down to watch a movie on Jackie Robinson, the Dodgers legend who broke Major League Baseball's color barrier in 1947. Steven told his son to let his playing do his speaking — echoing the well-known message Dodgers general manager Branch Rickey said to Robinson as he experienced bigotry 70 years ago.
If Ian was good enough, he could have a platform and share his story and message. It's now one of Moller's goals. He wants to become a voice for young Black baseball players and let others know they can succeed in the sport.
Moller has reached out to Charles City baseball player Jeremiah Chapman, who was heckled with racist remarks during a road game in Waverly this summer. The incident led Charles City to request a one-year break from games against Waverly Shell-Rock.
Chapman said Moller's support meant a lot to him.
"Many other people have reached out to me, but most of them just say the same thing," Chapman said. "But when he was talking to me, it felt like it was heart to heart and he was there for me."
If anyone begrudges Moller for not playing in Iowa, it doesn't get to him.
"Stuff like that doesn't bother me, because I've got bigger goals and dreams than a high school baseball experience," Moller said.
The next big dilemma: Going pro or to college
The 1,500-square-foot facility where Moller trains is about a mile from the family's home in Dubuque. Steven rented out the space from a friend two years ago. Ian, Steven and Shannon turned the garage into a baseball facility, laying carpeted turf, setting up cameras and lights and adding a weight room.
"I get to take my time to make sure everything's right," Ian said.
His dad calls the place Built Not Born Baseball Academy. Steven records his son's swings and breaks them down. They have a Rapsodo machine, which provides key data on his swing, such as the exit velocity and launch angle.
Whether born or built for greatness, Moller has impressed pro scouts.
"He's got a high ceiling," said a Major League scout who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the team does not publicly discuss evaluations of players they are actively scouting. "He could definitely go high in the draft. … The SEC doesn't recruit in Iowa very often, especially for position players. That's really rare."
If he does go high in June's draft, Moller has the next big decision of his life: Go to college or begin his professional career.
He's already contemplating that decision. His family has hired Sam Samardzija, the brother of big league pitcher Jeff Samardzija, an an adviser. Steven said all 30 MLB teams have contacted his son.
The family is weighing how much money would be needed to sway Moller from college.
"We were told from LSU and from Sam, three years of playing baseball at LSU is probably a million-dollar experience," Steven said. "I'm not saying a million dollars is our number. I'm just saying that it has to be possibly somewhere upwards of that or he's going to LSU."
It could be a lot more, though. The No. 16 pick in this June's draft, Chicago high school star Ed Howard, reportedly signed with the Cubs for $3.75 million.
History's at play with Moller at next year's draft. Since 2000, the only person drafted in the first round straight from an Iowa high school was Iowa City High product Jon Gilmore in 2007. He went No. 33 overall as a first-round supplemental pick. Derek Hill, who was taken No. 23 overall in 2014, briefly played at Dowling Catholic but finished at Elk Grove High School in California.
Of course, a lot can happen before the draft.
Moller has to continue showing scouts he has the goods. He'll have another shot during the Perfect Game All-American Classic on Sept. 4 at Chickasaw Bricktown Ballpark in Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. The game includes the top players in the class of 2021. Ian will be one of the most closely followed there.
Jerry Ford, the president and founder of the Cedar Rapids-based baseball evaluation group Perfect Game, calls Moller a likely first-rounder because of his elite catching ability and power as a hitter.
"We've had a lot of really good catchers, including some that went in the first round," Ford said. "He's as good as any of them."
Even when he was young, Moller handled his acclaim in stride.
Shannon said when Ian was in eighth grade, a local newspaper did a story on him. The write-up was hung on the wall in the school's hallway for everyone to see. Ian asked that it be taken down, she said.
Now, though, Ian knows he can't run from the attention.
"I want to be a major-leaguer, the best of all-time, so the attention is going to come with it," Moller said.
Correction: An earlier version of this story referenced the 2002 World Series game that was played on the day Ian Moller was born. It was Game 6 that was played that day.
Tommy Birch, the Register's sports enterprise and features reporter, has been working at the newspaper since 2008. He's the 2018 Iowa Sportswriter of the Year. Reach him at email@example.com or 515-284-8468. Follow him on Twitter @TommyBirch.
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