But some parents believe there are problems hiding behind that success, and in December, a lawyer representing three families sent a letter to the school’s administration stating that Gibbs had revoked their boys’ positions on the baseball team at St. John’s and forced them to transfer after they would not pay to play on his private offseason travel team. The letter alleged that Gibbs and St. John’s were running a “pay-for-play” system that treated the players and their parents unfairly.
The St. John’s administration investigated the claims and cleared Gibbs of all wrongdoing, according to school spokeswoman Kathy Howe Bagley. Gibbs, while acknowledging those players left after failing to meet his requirement of playing for his offseason program, said he does not profit from his private baseball team — although neither the school nor Gibbs provided financial documentation to support that assertion.
The six-page letter from Washington law firm KMA Zuckert, sent in response to the school’s insistence that at least one of the transferring players pay the full year’s tuition, underscored the lingering turmoil endured by one of the country’s top high school baseball teams over the past 10 months. It included the departures of five varsity players, each of whom is committed to a Division I college program for baseball, from a roster of roughly 25. This spring’s season is postponed because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
Emails and other documents provided to The Washington Post show a dispute among the school’s administration, Gibbs and multiple parents over the requirement — which is considered to be unusual in the world of elite travel baseball — that St. John’s players play in Gibbs’s private travel program, for which he serves as an administrator. Some families said Gibbs’s offseason program can cost more than $12,000 in total expenses each summer and fall.
“While these parents have had to relocate their families and find new schools, the greatest impact has been on the boys,” said KMA Zuckert attorney Andrew Yingling, who is representing three families of players who transferred. “They were forced to leave behind their friends, teammates and classmates and transfer from St. John’s for no other reason than they did not pay and play for Coach Mark Gibbs’s offseason private travel team.”
Gibbs called the allegations included in the letter “false” and stood by his requirement that his school players participate in his offseason program.
“I was not going to bend the rules for a small number of people who decided that this was an a la carte menu, and because that’s the world we live in, that’s what they wanted,” he said in an interview. “My responsibility was to the 40 families who were following the expectations of this program.”‘A difficult position’
The central issue in the letter, which was sent to the school foremost to ensure that three of the transferring students would not have to pay the entirety of the school year’s tuition (roughly $20,000 per year), is the coexistence between Gibbs’s St. John’s team and his offseason teams.
Gibbs co-operates a for-profit company called Diamond Skills Baseball LLC and leads another program called D.C. Cadets, according to the school. The distinction between the two is at the heart of the school’s response to the claims, in addition to being a source of confusion for the parents involved.
St. John’s, responding to questions for this article, called Diamond Skills “a for-profit baseball camp,” in which St. John’s players often participate but are not required to do so. The school identified D.C. Cadets as a travel baseball team that every St. John’s player is required to play for during the offseason and is a “zero-profit" entity.
The activity fees players pay to play on D.C. Cadets can run as high as $2,400 annually, according to the school, and go toward coaching, league fees and equipment. But multiple parents have alleged that those costs can run much higher, via additional fees that have included scrimmages, a winter camp, training sessions and a spring break trip.
The distinction between Diamond Skills and D.C. Cadets is further muddled by the fact that Gibbs’s teams go by Diamond Skills, not D.C. Cadets, when they play in showcase events during the summer. This, according to the school, is because the for-profit camp company name carries better brand recognition with college coaches. In the promotional brochure for the St. John’s team last year, the Diamond Skills name — not D.C. Cadets — was used to tout Gibbs’s offseason program.
Multiple parents say both travel program components, D.C. Cadets and Diamond Skills, are requirements to remain on the St. John’s team. Gibbs said that the Diamond Skills camps are not required.
Last May, when the father of one of his most talented young players, James Triantos, said he wanted his son to take three weekends off last summer, the coach replied:
“Before [you decided] to come to SJC I was very specific about what the commitment was going to be. This is not a ‘pick and choose’ type situation,” Gibbs wrote in the May 28 email to Jim Triantos. “The SJC baseball program and DC Cadets program (which includes the summer player development and Diamond Skills) are all linked together.”
After Jim Triantos had James, who is committed to play baseball at the University of North Carolina, not participate in Gibbs’s offseason travel program, he received an email in August from the school’s former athletic director Brian Griffin.
“We have reached a point where James’ continuing participation is simply not an option,” Griffin wrote, in part.
Griffin did not respond to a request for comment.
“It left our family in a difficult position,” Jim Triantos said in an interview. “It was too late to transfer, but we knew we would have to transfer in order to let our son play baseball this year. It’s an awful lesson to try to explain to a group of kids that sometimes adults don’t operate in their best interest.”
Another parent, Andy Feffer, emailed Gibbs that his son would play for another travel team during the fall. Gibbs replied that Jake Feffer, who is committed to South Florida, would no longer be able to play with the D.C. Cadets team and that Gibbs would “get his locker cleaned out” at the school, according to an Aug. 19 email obtained by The Post.
The other three players mentioned in the legal letter are Nick Frazier, a Virginia Commonwealth commit; Jack O’Connor, a University of Virginia commit; and James Wood, a Mississippi State commit. Triantos has since transferred high schools to Madison, Wood transferred to IMG Academy in Florida, and Feffer, Frazier and O’Connor transferred to Bishop O’Connell.
The incidents were a reminder of the year-round commitment that Gibbs and the St. John’s administration demand from each of the players and their families before they enroll at the school and join the baseball team, which has deep roots within the Gibbs family. Mark’s father, Ed Gibbs, is a 1967 graduate of the school and became the baseball team’s coach in 1993.
By 2007, Ed Gibbs stepped down as coach — the school’s field is named after him — and named his son his successor. Mark Gibbs has been head coach since, with his father and brother, Kevin Gibbs, serving as assistants. His rise to prominence coincided with the school’s development of a muscular athletics department, which received a considerable boost in 2015 when Under Armour founder and St. John’s alum Kevin Plank donated $16 million. In the past six years, St. John’s has won 23 league and city championships, according to the school’s website.
About a decade ago, Mark Gibbs said he made it mandatory for his players to participate in his summer league and showcase teams. The summer travel baseball circuit has long been considered more important to prospects than their high school teams because the showcase events provide the opportunity for players to be seen by college coaches and pro scouts.
The summer also gives coaches a chance to make money off camps. Diamond Skills Baseball LLC, which Gibbs co-owns with his brother, Kevin, and Georgetown Prep baseball coach Chris Rodriguez, hosts five camps per year for middle and high school players that attract upward of 100 athletes each, Gibbs said. The camps cost as much as $425 per player. Rodriguez did not respond to a request for comment.
“As part of our philosophy, participation in summer and fall baseball, as well as offseason workouts, is required,” Bagley, the spokeswoman, said in a statement, clarifying that while players are required to play for the D.C. Cadets summer program, they are not required to attend Diamond Skills Baseball camps. “We do not have a ‘pay-to-play scheme.’ We have a participate-to-play philosophy. This was done in order to support player development, monitor the amount of innings our pitchers were throwing, and monitor the amount of at-bats our position players were getting. We believed that keeping our players together would produce a culture of family, brotherhood, and a stronger team. This has proven to be true.”
The Washington Post obtained a copy of the transfer waivers of two of the students. Kara and Kevin O’Connor, the parents of sophomore pitcher Jack O’Connor, stated in their waiver application with the Washington Catholic Athletic Conference in August that their son was no longer allowed to play on the school team because he didn’t play for Gibbs’s offseason travel team.
The O’Connors, who declined to comment for this article, also told the conference in the waiver that St. John’s baseball had presented a financial hardship for their family.
“The cost of participating in St. John’s Baseball and all of its out of season requirements is, conservatively, more than $12,000 a year (including travel related costs),” they wrote in the waiver. “What’s more, under Coach Gibbs’ rules, players and their families have to incur these costs whether or not they want their sons to play for his private travel team or participate in the other various out of season workouts."
The letter sent to the school also states that Gibbs is receiving an “impermissible private benefit” to use St. John’s facilities for offseason training without compensating the school and that his footing as the school’s baseball coach and faculty position of director of development gave him an insider advantage to derive financial benefit “through the manipulation of SJC’s exempt status.”
Gibbs doesn’t pay the school for use of its facilities during the offseason and said, while he has more than 55 players paying upward of $2,400 a year in baseline fees, he doesn’t receive any compensation for D.C. Cadets.
“This was never about money,” said Gibbs, who added that the purpose of the travel team was to “develop players.” St. John’s declined to provide The Post with financial information for Gibbs’s private offseason program.
Multiple coaches from similar-sized offseason teams in the area provided The Post with financial details of their own programs, on the condition of anonymity. They said that player fees go toward facilities, coaches’ salaries and tournament fees, and they estimated that coaches who take on a full schedule can make roughly $8,000 annually.
The fees that players pay for D.C. Cadets are not unlike those at other top summer traveling baseball programs, yet most of those teams pay overhead for facilities.
And those teams, unlike Gibbs’s, don’t align with any one school or require players from one school to play.
Multiple parents of players who have transferred from St. John’s are less concerned with whether Gibbs profits from his offseason program and more concerned that he dictates where parents must spend their money during the summer and fall to keep their son’s spot on the school team.
Several WCAC schools guard against conflicts of interest between their school teams and offseason programs. Gonzaga College High’s student-athlete and coaches handbook states: “It must be explicitly stated by each coach, in writing, that participation in fee-based off season workouts is optional and will not directly or indirectly affect an athlete’s ability to make the team or his playing time.” At Bishop McNamara, coaches are allowed to have only a fraction of their school players on any offseason teams.
Gibbs has maintained steadfast support from the school and a vast majority of parents and players. After learning that The Post was reporting this article, Gibbs’s brother, Kevin Gibbs, sent an email to current and former parents and players of the program and asked them to consider signing a petition of support. A current parent on the team provided that petition to The Post, which included: “As parents, we wish to state, unequivocally, that we were made fully aware of the expectations before we joined the program.” The petition listed the names of more than 100 supporters.
Of the five players who transferred, three were granted WCAC waivers to compete this season for Bishop O’Connell. One of those waivers went to Nick Frazier, whose mother, Joann Frazier, said her son endured the same consequences as the other players for not playing for Gibbs’s offseason team last fall.
“He loved St. John’s. He loved his teammates,” Joann Frazier said. “The more time that passes and the more I think about it, I can’t believe he had to leave the school that he loved.”